The Independent MBA: Battlefield in the boardroom

There are now niche-market courses on just about anything, from military administration to football
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The Independent Online

Why would officers from the Chinese army pay thousands of pounds for a year in a British classroom? There are no secrets on offer and scarcely a gun in sight, even though the teachers are defence experts and their classmates are soldiers and government officials.

They have come to England to learn a different and more bureaucratic sort of warfare – the sort normally waged behind closed doors with politicians and accountants. Along with dozens of home-grown civil servants and forces personnel, they have signed up for a Master in Defence Administration course at the Royal Military College of Science in Shrivenham.

The course is one of a growing number of "niche" MBAs, placing Britain's multi-million-pound defence industry alongside football, catering and oil extraction as subjects for the postgraduate business student. It is, in essence, an MBA for soldiers, promising the latest in management techniques and financial practices as the battle of the bottom line gains ever more importance. The idea is to help them negotiate a world of shrinking budgets and shifting policies far removed from certainties of the parade ground.

Here, students are introduced to the world of policy making and policy presentation, which have a huge effect on the fighting strength of any army or navy. In particular, the Shrivenham course deals with the multi-billion-dollar world of defence procurement and the complex relationships that have grown up between private manufacturers and government.

"The perception that will have changed most dramatically for our foreign students is the way that defence is now using more and more business models," says Gary Crocker, the deputy director of the MDA programme. "Defence outside the UK and European countries tends to be dominated by state-owned industries." In future, military managers will need more understanding of their counterparts in industry, he says, so the course takes students through case histories such as the troubled development of the Eurofighter plane project. It also involves regular contact with manufacturers such as Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems.

The course has been running for 17 years taking soldiers from a wide variety of nations. This year the Chinese are accompanied by the Chileans and the Swiss. Next year will see Argentinian forces at Shrivenham. Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Jamaica, Finland, Norway and Indonesia have all been represented in the past.

With MBA courses typically costing £7,000 to £15,000 in tuition fees alone, there are big bucks to be made by the universities. As a result, they are leaving no stone unturned in the search for new and ever-more unlikely fields of expertise.

Students of the 19th hole can take an MBA in Golf and Country Club Management at Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh. The attractive brochure promises "a critical and evaluative perspective on developments in the management of golf and country clubs and their role in a global marketplace". The same college offers an MBA in Hospitality Management where students will be expected to consider "theoretical approaches to the study of food and dining, in relation to the patterns of consumption in a post-industrial society".

Liverpool University's three-year-old MBA in Football Industries has already attracted worldwide interest. No profession has been ignored, it seems. Farmers can take a masters degree in International Food and Agribusiness at the Royal Agricultural College. Mining engineers and oil barons can get their certificates in Oil and Gas Management and Mineral Resources Management at Dundee. Tax collectors can do a masters in Tax Business courtesy of PricewaterhouseCoopers. Even builders are in on the act, with an MBA in Construction and Real Estate at the University of Reading's College of Estate Management.

Specialist or "boutique" qualifications tend to follow the same format. Around a third of the material is a standard MBA core, including an analysis of finance, organisation and management. This sits alongside a more detailed programme of specialist professional knowledge, plus an industry-based dissertation or work placement.

If the format is predictable, the quality is less so. There have been complaints that some niche courses are little more than an MSc in fancy dress. Those with the best reputation are accredited by the Association of MBAs. Courses with a strong and specific business component may well be a good bet for people in the industries concerned, says Peter Calladine of the Association of MBAs. But he urges caution when it comes to specialist qualifications with non-specialist titles such as "management".

In a very fluid market, courses collapse as quickly as they are created. The death of the Nineties' fad for Total Quality Management has now been confirmed with the disappearance of the TQM MBA course. Another case in point is the MBA in Church Management, once run by Bishop Grosseteste College at Lincoln. The recent travails of the churches, from cash crises to paedophile scandals, might suggest a need for padres with an understanding of organisational change and presentation. But the MBA never attracted more than 10 candidates and folded two months ago.

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