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Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Cross The Channel for Sun and Small Classes

Published By: The Independent - 08 Apr 2010

Why not study for an MBA in continental Europe? English-speaking students have traditionally spurned the idea, but this is changing fast as canny students come to realise that there are huge advantages to pursuing their education in countries such as France, Spain or Switzerland. American students now outnumber all other nationalities at INSEAD, and other schools are reporting similar rises.

“Last year we had a huge increase in applications from the UK and we are also seeing a lot of increase from the US,” says Nu(u acute accent)ria Guilera, marketing director for the MBA programme at ESADE, in Barcelona. “Studying abroad is a way that people can differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace. Most international companies now expect a level of international experience and students can certainly get that here. Only 13 per cent of our students are Spanish, the rest come from five different continents.”

Such diversity is common to European business schools. “We have 55 nationalities on our current programme. Ninety per cent of our participants are trilingual, ” says Vale(e acute accent)rie Gauthier, associate dean of the HEC MBA programme, in Paris. “This diversity is greater than any other top MBA in the West. But we also have other kinds of diversity. We have people from all kinds of backgrounds and we cover all sectors. We have a diversity of culture, of academic approach and of professional point of view.”

European MBAs tend to be shorter, and therefore more cost-effective, than US ones, and can often offer their students close links to Asia and the Middle East – a real attraction for today’s students who know they will be job-seeking in a difficult market.

Fees are broadly in line with equivalent schools in the UK, or can be lower, and standards are not an issue, with a growing number of European schools now considered world class. Spain has three business schools in the top 20 of this year’s Financial Times’ global rankings. IE comes 6th, IESE 11th and ESADE 19th. Also in the top twenty are two French schools, INSEAD, at 5th and HEC, at 18th, while Switzerland’s IMD comes in 15th.

“In the past maybe there was some validity to saying, for example, that if you were trying to get a job in the US managers didn’t know much about European schools, but that isn’t the case any more,” says Joseph LiPuma, director of the international MBA programme at EMLyon. “People also used to think European schools were out of the mainstream, but they have made great advances in recent years and anyway no-one knows where the mainstream is going to be any more. People are certainly not going to be spending their whole career in one country.”

Neither is there any need to speak the language of the host country, since most schools teach in English. However language classes are usually included at least at the beginning of MBA programmes, giving students an additional skill. “And we find that all our students who take the required classes tend to carry on and all of them can understand a conference in French when they leave,” says Gauthier. “For employers, this shows you have a real open-mindedness and an adaptive capacity.”

European schools often have small classes and superb facilities and all feel they can offer their students something different.

“We at ESADE are very focussed on teamwork and collaborative working, right up to part of your grades actually being dependent on how the other people in your group perform,” says Guilera.

For HEC it’s a strong commitment to what Gaulthier terms the “humanistic” approach of looking at long-term, holistic values over short-term returns on investment.Perhaps not surprisingly, many alumni go on to work in public sector and NGO jobs. “And, of course, we, and French schools in general, can open the door to some specialist sectors like luxury. Companies like L’Ore(e acute accent)al and LVMH are close partners of HEC.”

Further east, the business school ESMT, in Berlin, offers students a nose-up view of a different way of doing business. “Germany, if you like, has more of a stakeholder approach than a shareholder approach, so it has not suffered as much from the financial crisis, and has bounced back more quickly,’ says Nick Barniville, director of MBA programmes. “People come here to understand the mentality of companies based in Germany. Our students come from 21 different counties, mostly attracted by the German culture and the strong corporate links that ESMT has.”

Then there is the lifestyle. “An MBA isn't just a year of intensive study, it's also a year spent living in a new city,” points out Valérie Claude-Gaudillat, director of MBAs at Audencia Nantes School of Management. “This aspect of the experience is not highlighted enough. The feedback we get from our students is that the quality of life in Nantes is a major factor in them getting the most from their MBA. Nantes is regularly ranked as the French city with the best quality of life and Time magazine recently called it 'the last best place to live in Europe'.”

“There is so much more in terms of language, culture and food to get yourself embedded in,” agrees Joseph LiPimo. “Lyon is the gastronomic capital of France, It’s two hours from the Mediterranean and two hours from skiing and two hours from Paris. And if you study outside your home country you continue to learn even when you’re not in the classroom.”

“Why am I doing my MBA here?” asks Hugo Williamson, 29, a British MBA student at ESADE, in Barcelona. “I only have to look out of the window to answer that. It’s a gorgeous sunny day and I’ve been in tee shirt and shorts for the last couple of days! More to the point it’s a great school. I’d been out of the UK for four and a half years and although I wanted to come back to Europe I didn’t, quite honestly, want to come back to the UK. I was working in Hong Kong and had lots of meetings with someone from ESADE on her swings through Asia and the whole recruitment process seemed much less formal than in other places. I also liked the emphasis on teamwork. I really wasn’t in the mood for a highly aggressive 18 months, and the culture is undoubtedly more collegiate than in other places. I’m halfway through and it’s been a great experience. I was a consultant for eight years before, working in South Africa and Asia, and now I’m looking for jobs all over the place.”