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    The niche MBA

    Business education is going niche.

    The traditional MBA has long been regarded as the gold standard for aspiring business leaders. However, recent years have witnessed a notable increase in the demand among students for specialised management degrees.

    These programmes, tailored to specific sectors such as hospital administration, entertainment management and beyond, have surged in popularity, driven by the demand for specialised skills and expertise in niche industries, while demand for more generalised MBAs has plateaued.

    The latest Application Trends Survey from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which runs the GMAT entrance exam to business schools, shows that while overall demand for business master’s degrees declined 3 percent last year, demand for the MBA experienced a steeper drop of 5 percent.

    Prior to 2023, the total number of business master’s applications – a bucket that includes specialised degrees in areas like finance, as well as management – has largely been increasing over the past several years.

    “The evolution of the business landscape, particularly the impact of tech and environmental factors, means that many graduates are looking to ensure they have expertise to offer, but grounded in a business education environment,” says Nalisha Patel, regional director for Europe at GMAC.

    Since 2014, GMAC data shows the Master’s of Finance has been the most popular business Master’s degree, followed by the Master’s of Data Analytics.

    Other areas, such as Technology, Sustainability Management, Real Estate and Healthcare have also seen spikes in interest among prospective students, contributing to declines in for broader programmes, according to a recent QS report. Emerging niches, such as Supply Chain Management and Hospitality Management, have also seen initial bumps in interest.

    The proliferation of specialised management degrees can be attributed to several factors.

    Firstly, the increasing complexity and specialisation within industries necessitate a deep understanding of sector-specific nuances and challenges. For instance, the healthcare industry requires administrators who comprehend healthcare policy, medical ethics, and patient care management.

    Furthermore, as industries become more competitive, organisations seek candidates with niche knowledge and skills that can drive innovation and foster growth.

    Specialised management degrees offer students a focused curriculum that hones in on industry-specific competencies, equipping them with the expertise needed to excel in their chosen field.

    New York University’s Stern School of Business launched its MS in Business Analytics Programme more than 10 years ago, a first among top business schools.

    Since then, the part-time programme for students who are already in work has been enhanced to focus on how artificial intelligence tools can be applied to data-driven decision making.

    “The intersection of business and AI is now a key pillar of the programme,” says Anindya Ghose, academic director of the NYU Stern programme. “This kind of analysis is essential to every sector; we’ve seen the range of industry backgrounds our students come from greatly expand in recent years to include manufacturing, media, retail, IT, consulting, financial services and more.”

    The degree, priced at $87,800, helps students leverage data to drive strategic decision making in their organizations.

    Life cycles

    These niche business Master’s programmes often integrate hands-on experience, such as internships or practicums, allowing students to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world scenarios – and build valuable industry connections.

    For example: HEC Paris’s Master’s in International Finance prepares students for careers in the finance industry through a four-month internship built into the full-time degree programme. The budding financiers also go on a study trip to London to visit the city’s many financial institutions.

    Students have the chance to build strong connections with industry professionals. These networks can prove invaluable for career advancement and future collaborations. It’s notable that 100 percent of the students enrolled in HEC’s degree secured employment within three months of graduation last year, earning an average starting salary of €78,000.

    “Typically, our graduates come out of the Master’s in International Finance programme with skills that allow them to be deployable from their first day on the job,” says Evren Örs, the programme’s academic director. Compared with 2019, the number of applications to the degree have increased by roughly 15 percent.

    These specialised programmes offer tailored coursework that addresses the specific challenges and trends within a particular sector. This focused approach enables students to develop specialised skills that are directly applicable to their chosen field.

    The full-time Master’s in Hospitality Management, at EHL Hospitality Business School in Switzerland, covers a wide range of areas relevant to the hospitality and service economy, including sustainable transformation, finance, food and beverage management, as well as real estate and consulting.

    The school recently struck a partnership with Cartier, the luxury jewellery and watchmaker, to incorporate the principles of luxury marketing, finance and operations into the curriculum. EHL says this partnership has driven a 31 percent year-on-year increase in applications to the CHF 39,500 Master in Hospitality Management to date.

    However, the school says that many hospitality skills are transferable and can open up careers in a wide range of industries. “It’s crucial to remember that sectors beyond hospitality hire our graduates,” says Achim Schmitt, dean of EHL.

    Many specialised management programmes offer flexibility in course selection, allowing students to tailor their education to align with their career goals and interests. Students enrolled on the €30,000, full-time Master’s Programme in International Design Business Management at Aalto University in Finland can take classes in entrepreneurship.

    “Our applications are open to students from all disciplines; we have candidates from accounting and quantum computing, as well as law and fashion,” stresses Ville Eloranta, the programme’s director. “Our intake of students has increased nearly 40 percent during the last five years.”

    Primarily, though, the programme teaches interdisciplinary creative teamwork – which Eloranta says is increasingly needed in the arts and design industries, due to the increasing prevalence of wicked and ill-defined problems generated by sustainability issues, geopolitical tensions and rapidly developing new technologies, such as generative AI.

    As the demand for specialised skills continues to grow, niche management degrees can offer a viable pathway for students seeking to distinguish themselves in a competitive job market.

    Read more articles like this from QS Insights Magazine, Issue 16.