Industry-specific Masters: A box of business delights

Everyone from festival organisers to military personnel can find a management course to spur on their careers. Midge Gillies reports
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The Independent Online

For anyone interested in the business of events and festival management, Edinburgh is a living case study with an international reputation. As well as the annual Edinburgh Festival and its Fringe, the city stages a military tattoo, jazz, literary and film festivals.

Napier University Business School, which is based in the city, launched its MSc in international events and festival management three years ago to take advantage of an industry that was both local and internationally renowned. Like many other business schools it is finding that there is strong demand for degrees focused on a specific sector.

"It was a result of our own research into what the market wanted. We saw the need for more specialisation and more advanced knowledge," says Martin Robertson, lecturer in festival and events management at Napier.

The current programme has 42 students, only a third of whom are from the UK. Robertson points out that events and festival management is not solely about the arts but can include all kinds of sport there is even a festival of "extreme sport" and the corporate world. One student from Napier works full-time for an international oil company where they organise up to 10 events a week, and a growing number of cities around the world are launching festivals as a way of boosting their economies.

"Business skills start with finance and budgeting, but they relate to vision, longevity, sustainability and risk which is probably one of the most significant business areas now in anything that involves large numbers of people."

Manchester Metropolitan University Business School also launched its Masters in digital marketing communications to try to take advantage of a new and growing industry. Students come from jobs in which they have to ensure their organisation has a strong internet presence for example, that a search engine will put their website at the top of its rankings. David Bird, course leader for the MSc, says it's an industry that is changing so fast that someone who's been working on search engines for 10 years will describe their job as "heritage".

The school launched the MSc, which is spread over three years, last September when it took 15 students. It expects to have 25 students next year. They will be a mixture of freelancers and employees from the public sector, education, government, finance and the media. Bird denies that this type of industry-specific Masters could limit a student's career prospects.

"Even though this appears to be a very focused MSc, it encompasses a whole range of skills and knowledge. If you took on a leadership role this is a good jumping point because of its strategic nature."

Manchester Business School has been running an MA in health services management, in various forms, for 30 years. It has strong links with the local NHS, and senior managers regularly lecture on the programme which the school relaunched two years ago as an MSc in healthcare management.

"We wanted to widen its appeal and bring in more contextual stuff about public health. We didn't want it to be just about people running hospitals, but the context of health," says Lawrence Benson, the programme director.

The MSc is attracting students from a wide range of healthcare backgrounds, including doctors, nurses, pharmacists and dentists. Benson says this is important because it avoids "education in ghettos". The current group has seven non-UK nationalities, including the programme's first Japanese student. The school has been marketing the course heavily in India and Pakistan where students are keen to work in for-profits healthcare.

"They tend to be highly entrepreneurial types who want to get into management," says Benson. "That helps the UK NHS because they're being asked all the time to be less insular. They're looking to further understand their career and what the managers are talking about."

The business school approach is evident in subjects such as "lean thinking", marketing, and governance, and personal development which are taught by faculty outside the public and healthcare sector.

"Students look at what they find challenging on the programme or on their year in the UK, or, if they are practising UK managers, what they've got on their plate back at the trough their GP practice. And they will be able to bring those problems into the group and work through them."

Cranfield School of Management also stresses the importance of making classes relevant to everyday working life. It launched its MSc in international human resource management (defence) in 2006. Students are mainly colonels, lieutenant-colonels and majors stationed around the world, and their theses usually tackle a military issue. One student, for example, who is based in Germany, chose to look at labour laws as they affect civilian staff and the use of works councils.

Dr Clare Kelliher, the programme director, says it's surprising how often a military topic can apply equally to corporate life. The armed forces, for example, often have large numbers of people posted abroad, with or without their family. The same topic crops up in a multinational company. She's also been impressed at the military's creative approach to issues such as flexible working and skills shortages. Cranfield is keen to provide a degree that is relevant to the armed forces but doesn't ignore current business thinking.

"The culture, the language, is such that there's quite a learning exercise involved but students are very interested in civilian experience as well and our discussions aren't just focused on what is happening in a military context."

Faculty come from both the School of Management and Defence College of Management and Technology and use mixed case studies, including companies. The MSc is important for anyone wanting to climb the armed forces career ladder but Kelliher acknowledges that some students value it as a qualification that will be useful in civilian life.

She hopes to broaden the MSc to include students from the defence industry, such as British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce who would understand the industry but bring a commercial approach to studies.

'On the course, you get an insight into every area of the business'

Danielle Plested, a strategic programme manager at Homebase, completed a Masters in retail management at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School. Her employers, Sainsbury's, and then Homebase, funded her

I'd worked for Sainsbury's for seven years and was at a place where I needed to stimulate the brain again, to push myself on. The thought of three years studying while working full-time was scary. You get very insular when you're in a big company.

On the course, you cover everything marketing, supply chain, HR and get an insight into every area of the business which on a normal day-to-day basis you just wouldn't. The other students were from Sainsburys' but from all areas which was really good for networking.

When you're doing 50 to 60 hours a week, to find the time to do an assignment every weekend is tough. You could choose what you wanted to do your dissertation on. I'd just gone through a big restructuring at Sainsbury's, so I wanted to do something on change management and coincidentally, Homebase recruited me to lead a restructuring. Everything that I was studying the theory of to write my dissertation on I could use in practice at work.