The economic crisis forced many European business schools to expand abroad and Asia has been the biggest beneficiary. Lured by strong growth prospects, they are surging into the cities of Hyderabad and Seoul and Beijing and Shanghai.
Tapping the education markets of China and Singapore in particular has been a blessing for both business schools and their students.
The globalization of postgraduate education, the onset of learning technology and a new generation of globally mobile students feeds into European schools’ visions of becoming international players, and their hopes to rival the United States.
“Candidates are looking across the globe for their business education,” said Keegan Pierce, associate director of international admissions at Barcelona’s ESADE Business School.
The fiscal health of Europe is now in better shape and this is helping to make it a more attractive study destination, according to Santiago Garcia, director of recruitment and admissions at Grenoble Ecole de Management in France.
“The worst of the European economic crisis might now be over, and candidates start seeing not only the global opportunities a prestigious degree will give them, but also the possibilities in the countries where they get their degree,” she said.
The strength of a region is important to students because MBA candidates chose a study destination based on where they would like to work afterward, according to applicant surveys. But that is only part of the puzzle. Germany, for example, has few business schools that can rival the world’s best.
However Ralf Bürkle, director of marketing at Mannheim Business School in the city of the same name, believes German MBA programs can compete. “For the full-time MBA, we are now competing with the top European institutions,” he said. “In the past five years, we have seen a significant increase in prospect and applicant numbers,” he added.
There are other pockets of growth. Clusters of world-class business schools are beginning to emerge in the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark.
“We do believe that the Netherlands can compete with the larger countries in Europe when it comes to international education,” said Dr Milton Sousa, director of MBA programs at Rotterdam School of Management. It is a country with an international outlook, he said, “even more impressive considering the size of the Dutch economy.”
Competing on a global scale, however, is a challenge that many European schools are still grappling with. The UK and France lead the charge in most MBA rankings but these are wholly dominated by the US.
Eric Lucrezia, recruiting manager at ESSEC Business School in France, said that people in America “don’t realise there are MBAs abroad”. “It’s the largest market for MBAs [but] I think they are just on the brink of discovering that there are MBAs out in other parts of the world, taught in English and accredited,” he said.
Language is a barrier of entry to some programs, but also an opportunity for students to broaden their horizons. IE Business School in Madrid, for example, teaches programs in both English and Spanish.
“By mixing between class groups, students have greater opportunity to meet other peers and strengthen their networks,” said Alessia Di Domenico, IE director of careers. Languages are valued by employers, he added, most of whom need to deal with foreign clients or stakeholders. “An increasing number of positions require more than one language.”
Europe is reaching higher but those that do not feature highly in global rankings can find themselves stuck in the middle between the world's elites and the non-ranked business schools.
Brand recognition is increasingly important, according to MBA applicants contacted by BusinessBecause – both for academic and career prospects. “Traditionally we hire from the top 25 or 30 schools from around the world,” said Stephen Shih, head of MBA recruitment for Bain & Company in Asia Pacific, although he added the firm takes a “global view”.
Online learning is also disrupting business education in Europe. Many students are opting for distance programs, which allow them to gain both new skills and the branding of leading schools, without necessarily leaving their residential locations.
Two leading US business professors recently envisaged a scenario in an opinion piece in which the technology used in Moocs – massive open online courses – eliminates the need for students to be in the same location at the same time.
“Rather than spending two years in business school on the assumption that some of that knowledge will pay back in a distant future, why not learn what you need when you need it?” asked Christian Terwiesch and Karl Ulrich at Wharton in the US.
In a potential bid to gain international standing, some European business schools have merged to combine their resources to reach wider global audiences.
In the UK, Ashridge announced this year its plans to merge with Hult Business School, while in France Neoma Business School was recently created from a merger between Rouen Business School and Reims Management School.
But consolidation on home soil is the ambition of a few. Most European schools are looking to Asia as their next big growth area.
Audencia Nantes in France recently announced plans to launch a double-degree MBA, among other programs, with two Beijing-based universities. Spain’s ESADE in October announced plans to launch a dual-degree with the Guanghua School of Management, which is based in Beijing, in September 2015. And London Business School in June said it had paired with Shanghai’s Fudan University to launch a double-degree master in management program.
Others, such as BI Norwegian Business School and Inseec Business School, have moved in a similar direction.
He said this period of mergers is the result of the huge market of young professionals in China who want a western oriented education. “Young undergraduates are seeking to upgrade their global skillsets in order to work both in multinational companies… [And] private enterprises.”
European schools are clearly going through a period of rapid expansion but for Keegan at ESADE, business education is already a global market. “Top programs must therefore understand their value proposition not only in terms of their own region, but relative to the global marketplace,” he said.