Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
Image of Hilary Wilce

International Space University's MBA is a great leap for mankind

Published By: The Independent - 03 Jun 2010

If you want to get ahead, get a specialism. With a tough economic times ahead, more and more business schools are getting creative with their resources in order to stand out from the crowd by offering niche MBAs.

And there can be no more niche qualification MBA than the new MBA set up by the International Space Institute in conjuction with other education partners, to offer management training for those working in the space industry – you need seven years in the industry to apply.

The executive course and runs in Strasbourg, Colerado, Washington and on the Isle of Man and while sixty per cent of its first12 students are engineers or scientists, others are working in finance or marketing (see box).

“It was set up on the basis of demand from our alumnae,” says Professor Walter Peeters, dean of the ISI, in Strasbourg. “The space sector used to run on public money and do what the government said but since the 1970s and 1980s it has become more commercial and engineers find they need to know all those funny words that they didn’t learn in physics.” The course, he says, covers traditional MBA ground such as finance and marketing, but with everything pinned to the space industry. “Things are very different for us. We aren’t marketing to customers, our work is business to business, we’re very high tech and we have our own slang and habits. Also, if we launch something and there’s a problem, we can’t get it back to put it right. Our project management has to mean zero fault tolerance.”

Only slightly more down to earth is the specialist aviation MBA starting in September at Brunel Business School. The school is ten minutes from Heathrow, and only a short drive from four other major airports, and has already run courses for the industry. “We’ve had a lot of interest from the Far East, and from regional aviation bodies, airlines and consultants,” says Professor Amir Sharif, director of MBA programmes at the school, who has himself worked in aerospace. “There is definitely an appetite for management development in this industry.”

Brunel already runs a specialist healthcare MBA, built on the back of the university’s history of research into healthcare, which has attracted interest from the Gulf states and south east Asia. Former student Divya Gupta, 30, is an occupational therapist who gained her MBA last December and used it to move into a new post. She is in charge of the primary care of cancer patients in Hertfordshire, Luton and south Bedfordshire and says that, although she had previous management experience, “this was a proper qualification” which helped get her the job.

“Everyone wants to get away from that cookie cutter mentality that says ‘Oh, if you’ve done an MBA you must have done this’. says Professor Sharif. “Specialist MBAs are taking that one step further, although they are still MBAs.”

Professor Bob Berry, director of MBA programmes at Nottingham business school says that, for Nottingham, specialist MBAs are all about taking a longer term view and helping the business school stand out by building on its particular strengths. Its specialist MBA in corporate social responsibility has long been a world leader, while an entreupreneurship specialism is aimed at “second career people” planning to strike out alone. “And our finance specialism is definitely meeting a big need – the world has far too few managers who understand finance.” Specialist students take seven core modules, and three specialist options. “But it is always a tricky balance. You have to offer a generalist MBA and put it in a specialist context.”

Nigel Banister, chief global officer of Manchester Business School agrees. This year MBS reorganised its part-time MBA programmes into one Manchester Global MBA, with four specialisms in construction, finance, engineering and sports events. Three thousand students outside the UK are currently on the programme.

“Our MBA still prepares people for general management but students have 30 to 40 per cent leeway to tailor their courses around electives. Many of the courses on offer around the world are part-time, there has been a great growth in part-time study and people are often sponsored by their companies so if they can follow a tailored course then these companies can see they get a faster return on their money. Also part-time students are often older, they are happy working in the sector they are in and they just want to study further so it will be helpful to their career.”

Specialisms can be taken further, he points out, if a company asks a business school to lay on a course specifically to meet its needs. “But there can come a point where a course gets tailored to such an extent that it is not an MBA any more. If you make it too narrow it just won’t work.”

The Judge Business School, at Cambridge University, has also seen a need to offer more specialism and has reorganised its MBA into eight “concentrations” which allow students in the third term of their one-year, full-time MBA to focus on areas from the not-for-profit sector to healthcare or international business.

“This is a fifty per cent increase in our elective offerings,” says Jochen Runde, director of the MBA. “We are doing it because we have the expertise -- we can draw on the resources of the wider university – and we want to try and capture our first-choice candidates.”

And the strategy is already working, even though the changes have not yet been widely advertised. A French horn player with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a ballet dancer from Amsterdam are among candidates who have come forward specifically because one “concentration” at the Judge is now to study arts and cultural management.