The growth in unusual business qualifications

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Horses and riders at Taunton RacecourseImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
You can now do an MBA in horseracing

Steve Gibson says he has made it clear that people should never approach him for any betting advice.

"I'm a terrible punter!" he insists.

The 36-year-old does, however, often get asked for tips because of the university course he is enrolled on - an MBA (Master of Business Administration) in thoroughbred horseracing industries.

Launched in 2015, the two-year course at Liverpool University has been specially designed for people who want to take up a senior administrative or leadership role in the sport.

A sister MBA at the college is called football industries.

While the two courses sound like a most enjoyable way to spend your time at university, they are in fact part of a growing trend - the rise of specialised MBAs.

MBAs have long been considered a must-have for ambitious young people seeking a fast-tracked and successful career in business.

The celebrated post-graduate qualification is supposed to teach you all you need to be a future company leader, and places on MBA courses at the world's most prestigious universities are highly sought after, and therefore very difficult to get accepted on.

Image source, Steven Gibson
Image caption,
Mr Gibson is juggling the MBA with working for the British Horseracing Association

Yet while it used to be the case that having a standard MBA was all you needed, such has been the rise in the number of colleges offering them, and people gaining the qualification, that specialised MBAs are now being increasingly offered with the aim of giving people an advantage in the industry they wish to join.

"Specialisation gives universities and students a way to stand out," says Anke Arnaud, associate professor of management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University in Florida.

"If everyone is offering an MBA programme, you have to find a way to differentiate, to innovate.

"It starts with attracting lecturers who have a depth of knowledge, and courses that are hip, in the now, and sexy.

"There's a need to offer something different to cater to specific careers."

Field trips

At Liverpool University the horseracing MBA includes the study of marketing, sponsorship, the media, sports law, regulation, and horse welfare, explains the head of the course, Neil Coster.

Students also go on a number of field trips, including seeing behind the scenes at a race day at Haydock Park, near Liverpool, and a visit to the UK's National Stud in Newmarket, in the east of England, the country's centre of racehorse breeding.

The idea for the course came from industry bodies the British Horseracing Authority and the Horseracing Betting Levy Board.

Mr Coster says: "They saw a need for a master's level education programme that would assist people already working in the industry to prepare and upskill for senior management positions, and help career changers to facilitate a move into the industry."

Image source, Neil Coster
Image caption,
Neil Coster, left, says the horseracing MBA covers all aspects of the industry

Those enrolled on the football MBA at Liverpool get to visit the headquarters of European football governing body Uefa, which is based in the Swiss town of Nyon.

And if that wasn't prestigious enough, last year they also visited nearby Tranmere Rovers.

Liverpool's football MBA is in fact one of the oldest specialised versions of the qualification, and is now in its 20th year.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The football MBA can be a big help in the big business world of football

"There was clearly a need for graduates with an excellent knowledge of management disciplines and their applications to football," says Babatunde Buraimo, a senior lecturer on the course.

The football MBA takes one year to complete full time, and costs £15,000 for UK nationals, or £21,500 for overseas students. The horseracing qualification costs from £7,500 per annum for two years.

Marie-Pierre Serret says she knows all about the value of a specialised MBA because without one she had struggled to secure a fulfilling job in the aviation industry.

Despite having a masters degree in international business and marketing, the 43-year-old Frenchwoman says she spent a number of years being bumped from job to job, including working as a flight attendant and a check-in clerk.

Image source, Marie-Pierre Serret
Image caption,
Marie-Pierre Serret says the aviation MBA helped her secure a good job

So a few years ago she sold her house and enrolled on an MBA in aviation management at Florida's Embry-Riddle Aeronautics University. It wasn't cheap, costing £33,000 for the course, which takes between one-and-a-half and two years.

"This specialised MBA is the missing link," says Ms Serret, who now works as a research assistant for an Embry-Riddle aviation business professor. Projects she has been involved in include working out the marketability of an aeroplane prototype, and advising the Puerto Rican government.

Some 1,200 miles (2,000km) north of Florida, Schulich Business School in Toronto, Canada, offers a 16-month MBA in global mining.

Marcia Annisette, associate professor of accounting at Schulich, says: "A cookie cutter MBA is so popular now that there's a push to have a strong subset of skills."

Despite the rising popularity of specialist MBAs, they do have their critics, who argue that as so much time is dedicated to focusing on the specific industry, not enough hours are dedicated to teaching business fundamentals.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Schulich Business School says the mining industry asked for its specialist MBA

"With only so much classroom time, taking a focused MBA would lead one to miss valuable lessons," says John Paul Engel, lecturer of entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa.

Meanwhile, Michal Strahilevitz, marketing professor at Duke University in North Carolina, cautions that she has seen scores of individuals who have pursued specialisation only to then discover that the specific profession wasn't quite for them.

Others warn that holders of specialised MBAs may struggle to secure the really senior jobs because the qualifications don't yet have the kudos of a general MBA.

Marlena Corcoran, chief executive of Athena Mentor, an international university admission counselling company, says: "A person with a specialised MBA is likely to wind up working for a person with a [general] MBA."

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