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MBAs Turn To Emerging European Business Schools

Emerging European business schools are beginning to stir. MBA candidates are considering Belgium, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands for relaxed immigration laws and cheaper fees.

By  Seb Murray

Tue Aug 26 2014

For once, Frank Fletcher is back in Belgium. As head of recruitment at Vlerick Business School, he has worked hard to earn the school’s international stripes.

But it has not been an easy endeavour. To add diversity to the Belgian troupe of the school’s MBA classes, he travels to nearly 30 countries on five continents over nine months.

“We invest a great deal in the recruitment of talent from all over the world,” he says. Like many European business schools, Vlerick’s cohorts are dominated by international students, but this has not historically been the case for all institutions.

Emerging European education markets have not always enjoyed much market share. Belgium and other Continent countries such as Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands have languished behind in the great MBA race.

“Belgium does not have the capacity enjoyed by markets like the UK and France,” Frank admits. He confesses that Belgium won’t compete in terms of total number of MBA students enrolled, but is adamant that it can compete with quality of education, experience and opportunities. It is a view shared by many emerging European MBA destinations.

“The Netherlands can compete with the larger countries in Europe when it comes to international education,” says Dr Milton Sousa, director of MBA and executive MBA programs at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM).

Erasmus University sees 5,500 international students from 80 nationalities flock to its campuses, the majority of whom study business administration at Rotterdam.

“The Netherlands has been for many decades a country with a very international outlook,” says Dr Milton. About 94% of RSM’s MBA class is international, according to FT ranking data.

There are signs that the Netherlands’ MBA market in particular is beginning to stir. Its schools have been climbing the MBA rankings – Tias Business School and RSM are both within the top 75.

Candidates are now drawn to a wider range of Euro destinations including Copenhagen, Brussels, Rotterdam and even Oslo. They are attracted by cheaper tuition fees, relaxed immigration laws and the “Scandinavian approach” – smaller, more intimate class sizes.

The latest applicant survey revealed that Denmark and Norway have both climbed four places, with Denmark leapfrogging China, one of the more established MBA markets, according to QS data.

The Netherlands is now the tenth most popular MBA destination – ahead of Italy, India and most of Asia.

Dr Milton says that RSM believes that smaller and more diverse MBA classes will forge better networks, meaning graduates will be stronger in the international jobs market.

Copenhagen Business School enrols just 35-40 MBA students each year. Thuli Kutloano Skosana, admissions manager for the full-time MBA, says this is attractive to applicants. About 70% of Copenhagen’s students are international.

“The style of teaching is unique, even how the students are seated in a classroom – it encourages participation. It’s a Scandinavian approach,” Thuli adds.

The increased enthusiasm for emerging European destinations is reflected in the number of candidates who are sending their GMAT scores to the Netherlands. Numbers have risen from 3,488 to 7,117, and have more than doubled in the past four years.

Dutch citizens are also taking the GMAT in record numbers. The figures increased 15% from 2008 to 2012, when 960 tests were sat, according to Graduate Management Admissions Council data.

But domestic candidates still prefer to study abroad. Local Europeans are not sending their scores to business schools in the Netherlands in high numbers. In 2012, only 1,011 were sent, representing less than 7% of total market share.

Rankings’ data suggest that just 5% of Rotterdam’s MBA class are Dutch. Dr Milton says that domestic MBA candidates are more likely to venture outside of the Eurozone, which is still struggling to regain economic momentum.

“The Netherlands is a small country, so if one is considering doing an international MBA program it could make sense to go international,” he adds.

The picture is much the same in Belgium, according to Frank. Only 15% of Vleric’s MBAs students are Belgian. “Nearly 60% of Belgians taking the GMAT send their scores to the US, UK, or France,” he adds.

Some argue that Denmark has not done enough to retain talent, a country whose government unveiled its second growth package in two years in 2014 as the economy has struggled to grow due to the ongoing weakness in the Eurozone.

This will be of particular concern for SMEs – which account for 66% of the country’s entire employment – because of succession challenges. Owner-managed companies account for 80% of business in Denmark and nearly 20% of those owners are aged over 65, according to Morten Bennedsen, chair of family enterprise at INSEAD, the French business school.

The Danish Industry Foundation estimates that due to the age of the proprietors, about 25,000 businesses will have to be transferred to new ownership in Denmark during the next 10 years.

Europe enjoys high rates of self-employment. Thuli says that Copenhagen’s MBA has a focus on entrepreneurship. While less than 10% of MBA students launch their own companies, graduates benefit from an entrepreneurial outlook.

“We have focus on leadership, entrepreneurship and sustainability,” she says. “The people who come here are looking for an interdisciplinary approach to education.”

About 40% of Copenhagen’s international graduates work in Denmark. Candidates are attracted to its MBA, which is triple-accredited and costs $56,000 in tuition, because of the government’s new Greencard immigration scheme.

Unlike the UK and US, which both have restricting immigration policies on international MBAs, many emerging European destinations welcome graduates with open arms.

“We are fortunate that we are situated in country that welcomes and values international talent,” says Dr Milton. Rotterdam sees between 50% and 60% of its graduates employed in the Netherlands.

“Obviously this is a big factor for many students when deciding to study at RSM,” he adds. About half of the MBA class pursues careers in financial services, consulting or marketing and business development.

It is similar at Tias Business School, according to Humphrey Sopakuwa, an MBA advisor responsible for recruitment.

“International students are granted a one-year search visa after completion of their program to look for a job in the country,” Humphrey says. Once they find a job, employers can file for a residence permit on their behalf as a kennismigrant – knowledge migrant, he adds.

Tias’ full-time MBA, which costs €37,500 in tuition, made it into the global MBA rankings two years ago.

The school limits the amount of Dutch students in its class to keep international numbers up, adds Humphrey. “International students can expect to become part of a multicultural environment.”

But Frank says that Vlerick’s international graduates do not obtain employment easily. The ability to communicate in the local language is one of the greatest challenges MBAs will face.

In Belgium, considered to be the heart of Europe, Vlerick’s MBAs are mobile. Students benefit from transport infrastructure and quick connections to Paris, London and Amsterdam, while the cost of living in Belgium is significantly less than many other European countries.

“In Belgium, you get the best of what Western Europe has to offer at a fraction of the cost,” says Frank.

Its MBA, which costs €36,000 in tuition, is taught in Brussels, Ghent and Leuven.

There are concerns, however, about application numbers. Most business schools in the Netherlands have seen MBA applications remain roughly flat.

But Dr Milton says that companies are now willing to invest in employee education, while there has been a global rise in the amount of businesses sponsoring MBA programs since the financial crisis.

“We currently do see an increase in applications for our Executive MBA programs within our domestic and international markets,” he says. RSM expects this trend to continue.

Yet there are new challenges that these emerging business schools face. Frank points out that Vlerick has to compete with the rise of China and India, as well as high-ranking schools in the US and Europe.

Nonetheless, there is a change in the air and emerging European MBA markets remain confident.

“Combine… Favourable tuition rates and the fact that the Dutch are generally known for their fluency in English as a second language,” says Humphrey, “and I would say that we are definitely able to compete with the more established markets.”