University managers must understand the strategic direction of their institutions if they want to compete in a higher education sector subject to market forces, according to academics behind the MBA in Higher Education Management.
Sir Peter Scott, joint director of the programme at the Institute of Education, University of London, said that higher tuition fees had made it more crucial than ever to have "thoughtful" and "reflective" senior staff.
The qualification has now been on offer for 10 years, and Sir Peter said that, during that decade, "the ability to think more strategically" has become much more important.
When the course started in 2002, he said, universities acted "incrementally" and "kind of added new things [without] much sense of standing back and saying what kind of university [they wanted] to be".
"The MBA tries to give people that kind of strategic perspective," Sir Peter said. "If you look at some of the most successful universities, like Warwick, they have had a strategy going back decades."
Michael Shattock, joint programme founder and visiting professor at the institute's Centre for Higher Education Studies, said he started the programme because "people were coming into senior management positions...with really not an understanding of how the university worked".
As higher education institutions expanded, he said, it became "more important to get people to realise that universities were organisations that need a high level of management training to run them".
"It's no good to think you can go from running an academic department or the student records system to be on the senior management team," Professor Shattock said, although he added that he did not think it was essential to do the MBA to be a successful manager.
The number of students on the part-time, two-year course has remained at 25 per cohort since its inception.
When the programme started, the majority of students were female, and Professor Shattock said that they might have seen the degree as "a way through the glass ceiling". Now, he said, the gender split was roughly equal.
The fee for the entire course will be £12,147 for 2012-13. Most students on the course are subsidised by their university employers.
Sir Peter said that around two-thirds of those who took the MBA were administrators, while a third were academics who had risen to senior university positions such as associate dean.
He said the MBA was "neutral" in the debate about how market-orientated and businesslike universities should be, and that students held both "managerial" and "collegiate" views of institutions.
"We're not trying to push one plan or another," Sir Peter said.