When the first MBA programme was established at the Harvard University Graduate School of Administration in 1908 there was a diminutive class of just 33 regular students. Now more than 100,000 of the degrees are earned worldwide every year and the demands as to what these degrees should offer are steadily increasing.

Since the Carnegie and Ford Foundations conducted studies in 1959 concluding that the programmes were too narrow in their focus, there has been a gradual evolution of the courses. One of the most significant developments has been the advent of the global climate emergency and the somewhat belated realisation that for any business to survive, it was necessary to have a planet on which to survive – and that business leaders with foresight need to look far beyond delivering bottom line results and returns to shareholders.

At Robert Gordon University (RGU), Aberdeen Business School’s MBA in Sustainability and Energy Transitions was designed to build on candidates’ prior professional experience to enable them to acquire a wider range of management knowledge and skills with additional specialist focus on these increasingly crucial areas.

Dr Anita Singh, senior lecturer and programme director of MBA and post graduate management at the business school, explains that by operating the course online, the university made it a two-year executive MBA programme with most of its students at mid-management levels in companies throughout the world.

“With students from Singapore, Australia, the US and Middle East among others – and of course the UK – the cohort is extremely diverse,” she says. “And since the students are in full-time employment, they are able to bring in ongoing issues for discussion within the context of whatever academic framework or theories we are teaching them in the class.”

RGU’s location places it at the heart of a region where energy transition is currently particularly crucial. “The major oil and gas companies all now have an energy transition roadmap,” she says, “and our collaboration with the industry is absolutely fantastic.”

One of the MBA’s flagship offerings is a leadership week with students coming from their home countries to meet peers, academics and make connections. “We invite senior industry leaders to come and speak to our students about their own experiences so there is a lot of interaction and support from industry and we’re very grateful for that,” says Dr Singh.

Earlier this year The University of Strathclyde Business School launched its MBA with Specialism in Sustainable Energy Futures, and Dr Phil Considine, director of executive education at the school, agrees that cooperation between academia, industry and the public and government sectors is now required on an unprecedented level.

“We are designing programmes for a number of large businesses on environmental impact and how we measure it,” he says. The students themselves, he adds, come from remarkably divergent backgrounds. “I initially thought that there would be many from two areas: organisations involved in energy production and some of the NGOs [non-governmental organisations] but we also have people from the tech sector, construction and local government among others. One of the things we are aware of in this programme is that sustainable energy impacts every single area of the country.

“So, if you’re a house builder, you have to be building with net-zero objectives and requirements, and if you are in the automotive industry, the shift to electric vehicles means that your entire business model is changing.”

Dr Considine stresses that sustainability is not just a vague aspiration. “My own PhD was on corporate social responsibility, specifically addressing the intersection of facts, beliefs and values. And the sustainability agenda is fact-based and data-driven. It’s very much values led: about organisations saying, ‘this is our responsibility, it’s the biggest challenge we’ve ever been presented with – so who do we need to work with to solve the problem?’

“What these organisations are realising is that by working with a broad range of stakeholders these aren’t just zero-sum games. You can make a return to your stakeholders and give them long-term results and at the same time be operating on a very responsible level and contributing to net zero – which is what we’re communicating on this MBA course.”