Sugar snap peas from Kenya. T-shirts from Vietnam. Pens, phones and almost everything else from China. The fabric of our modern world is made up of goods and foodstuffs that have been flown, shipped and trucked many thousands of miles. Even home-grown products clock up significant mileage as they pass from producer to wholesaler to retailer. Modern supply chains are long but they must also be flexible and efficient to meet the demands of a consumer society.

"Companies don't compete on price any more but on efficiencies in the supply chain," says David Oglethorpe, professor of logistics and supply chain management at Newcastle Business School at the University of Northumbria. "It's not about comparing businesses but one supply chain against another supply chain."

The growing importance of the supply chain has upgraded the role of those charged with managing these complex international business relationships.

"Jobs in this area are becoming more strategic rather than operational and the movement of goods is increasingly discussed at boardroom level," says Oglethorpe. "This is why we need a specialist course."

Students on supply chain management Masters programmes can expect to cover all the basics, from transport and warehousing to forecasting and HR, from hard skills, such as numerical modelling, to softer skills, such as change management. The courses attract people from a range of backgrounds, from the profit sector to NGOs.

Students tend to be graduates hoping to gain entry into an emerging industry or existing practitioners looking to upgrade their skills.

"Many senior supply chain directors have not had the traditional university background and have risen through the ranks to senior levels but now feel a bit exposed and need something to underpin them," says John Towriss, course director of Cranfield University's MSc in logistics and supply chain management. Many of these courses have a strong international element. The Cranfield MSc, for example, includes a trip to China where students can see the vast scale of development and people management issues.

"There is no point doing an international course if it's all based in the UK," says Towriss, who points out that the student body on his course is very international with students coming from China, Russia and Africa.

Dipen Majmunder, 25, an Indian marketing and HR graduate, has signed up to study the subject at the University of Northumbria.

"I came to the UK because I wanted to learn about this subject, which is very new in my country," says Majmunder. "This is a very fast-growing area with lots of opportunities in India because of the rapid expansion in the retail sector there."

Manchester Metropolitan University Business School's MSc in logistics and supply chain management has an unusual take on the subject, one that covers business, military and humanitarian emergency logistics and supply chain management.

"Students thereby broaden their CV for the multiple job sectors involved," says Dr Alan Carol, MMUBS senior lecturer. "It also gives students a wide perspective on supply chains."

Muhammed Tipu Pervaiz, 26, certainly hopes the MMUBS MSc will take his career in a "totally new direction". The Pakistani telecoms graduate is doing his dissertation on Emirates and hopes this will lead to a new career in the airline industry. "I'm looking at the application of RFID technology and how it will help with tracking luggage and parcels," he says.