Do Business Master's Offer Specialization the MBA Can't?


By Seb Murray


If you’re fascinated by the multi-billion-pound horse-racing business, there’s an MBA for that. The Thoroughbred Horseracing Industries course at University of Liverpool Management School provides an overview of management of racecourses and training, marketing, advertising, sponsorship, even bloodstock management and veterinary science. 

“One of the main objectives of the MBA course is to nurture future leaders for the industry across various sectors of the sport,” says Carole Goldsmith from the British Horseracing Authority. “I joined to broaden my knowledge of the racing industry, gain a greater understanding of business and to develop leadership skills,” adds Andrew Braithwaite, an alumnus of the UK-based course and finance director at the British Racing School.

Liverpool’s MBA is one example of a growing number of specialist MBAs for those who want a deeper dive into an individual subject. Faced with declining enrolment in their general MBA programs, business schools are adapting to students’ swelling interest in specialist areas by launching degrees in subjects such as data analytics, luxury goods, music, wine and Islamic finance. The MBA degree is going niche. 

Yet the rise of specialist courses threatens the dominance of the MBA, the flagship business qualification which has been around for more than a century. “It is not enough to be an MBA program. You need to know what differentiates you from the others or you will get eaten by specialist programs,” says Sean Meehan, director of the MBA at Swiss business school IMD

Rather than launching a niche degree, IMD has responded by offering students in its MBA the opportunity to specialise via electives, for example in big data or Islamic finance. The IMD MBA program ranks 21st in the QS Global MBA Rankings 2018. Yet by specializing in a subject via a standalone master’s, business schools say students can become more employable in fields that require niche skills, such as computer science.

“Management education is about preparing people for the workplace. To get into a specialist area, graduates stand a better chance in the job market with a specialist course,” Meehan admits.  

The problem specialist master’s students face is that they risk becoming too embedded in one sector, and may find it difficult to change industries, should they decide to do so. The MBA degree, on the other hand, is a general management qualification that provides a holistic overview of business functions and wide employment opportunities.

“Employers demand from us leaders with a broad understanding of management and business,” says Ian Rogan, director of the MBA program at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, (9th in the Global MBA Rankings 2018). At Oxford, the largest recruiting sectors are finance, consulting and technology. Students also work in social impact, consumer goods, energy and healthcare. The move towards specialist degrees risks leaving firms without the general leaders they need manage their operations, Rogan adds.  

Another downside is that specialist master’s students can miss out on the rich diversity of a general MBA cohort, in which participants mix with those from a wide range of professional and academic backgrounds.

Plenty of specialist master’s programs offer great career prospects, though. Many are created alongside employers, arguably better tailoring tuition to the needs of the market. There is an increasing demand from students for more specialization, and a clear willingness for business schools to provide more of these types of program. It is this demand that has led to the release of the QS Business Masters Rankings 2018, alongside the Global MBA Rankings 2018.  

Italy’s MIP Politecnico di Milano launched a master’s degree in luxury management, in partnership with Gucci, the luxury fashion brand. The program covers brand management, product design, supply chains and more to prepare students for managerial roles across the luxury market. Students split their time during the 12-month course between Reims in the Champagne region of France, and Milan, one of the world’s top fashion capitals. They work in the fashion, tourism and automotive industries at firms such as LVMH and Bottega Veneta.

Yet the specialist degree is not needed to work in those markets. MIP also offers a luxury track in its full-time MBA (=33rd in the European MBA Rankings). Djurdja Milutinovic enrolled in that course in 2014 after working as an interior designer for Louis Vuitton. “I was lucky enough to land my dream job in a great company before I even finished my MBA,” says Milutinovic, who became a project manager for Bulgari in Rome. A specialist degree can provide a boost to your employment prospects in niche fields, but an MBA will do that, too.