(article published in Diversity Magazine, Dec 2008)
They say that when one door closes another door opens. Which may be why the economic downturn looks likely to prove a boom-time for business education. According to a global survey of over 500 MBA programs by GMAC, the Graduate Management Admission council, 77% are reporting a rise in applications from potential students, up from 64% last year. Here in the US, for example, leading schools such as Harvard, Northeastern and Sloan School of Management at MIT are all registering double-digit rises in applications in comparison to 2007.
Of course, at least part of the reason for the stampede into MBA programs is the increasing demand for the qualification in the fast growing economies of eastern Europe, India and China. However there’s no doubt that it’s also being prompted by a feeling that a business school could be a good place to wait out the bad times for a couple of years. As Mark Mallinger of the Graziadio School in California puts it, “Some may have lost jobs or feel that the timing is right for taking two years out. Or if they’re not likely to get promoted and could get laid off, they’re thinking, ‘why not take two years off and take advantage of the situation?’”
The great majority of US citizens contributing to this spike in b-school applications will almost certainly take the ‘safe’ option and elect for a program in their own country, if not in their own state. However, in doing so will they be missing out on many of the wider aspects of management education that can make the experience so valuable and the return on investment much greater?
Today, with globalisation a reality and international communication virtually instantaneous, even the smallest company can find itself operating in a world rather than a purely domestic marketplace. In such an environment, an understanding of the cultural and commercial realities of how to do business around the globe can make all the difference between success and failure. And one of the best ways of achieving this understanding is by living and working alongside an international peer group whilst studying for an MBA. As Chris Griner, who took his MBA at Cranfield School of Management in England puts it, “It’s always the first question I get asked – why would an American go overseas for an MBA? For me it was to build international experience, to learn how to do business on a global scale and to experience other cultures in person.”
Whilst many US schools have worked hard to diversify the make-up of their student bodies over the past decade, it is still an acknowledged fact that their counterparts in Europe are still way ahead of the game. However many American students still only have a hazy idea of what is available on the other side of the Atlantic and may only be aware of the two most high profile players – London Business School in the UK and Insead in France. However these two are literally just the tip of a very large iceberg. Spain for example has several high profile schools, such as ESADE in Barcelona, which currently attracts participants from over 30 countries and whose MBA program has been ranked by BusinessWeek as one of the top 10 outside the US. Based in Barcelona, the school also offers access to what is generally acknowledged to be one of the continent’s most attractive cities thanks to its architecture, night-life and excellent Mediterranean climate. Manchester in the UK will never win any prizes for its climate (even the most partisan local will admit that it’s closer to Seattle than Palm Springs), but it does have one of the most vibrant artistic and music scenes in Europe and arguably its best known soccer team. In Manchester Business School, it also has the school ranked tenth in the world by the Financial Times for career advancement. Back on the mainland and just 20 minutes from Brussels in Belgium, the heart of the European Union, you’ll find Vlerick. Situated in the mediaeval university town of Leuven, the school offers the chance to soak up the historical atmosphere and mix with the huge student population whilst experiencing what a report by the French magazine L’Expansion has described as some of the best teaching of entrepreneurship on the continent. And, speaking of France, how could anyone considering a move to Europe ignore what is perhaps its most famous city, Paris? HEC, which is currently the continent’s top business school according to the Financial Times offers access to all of the cultural and social attractions as well as entry into a network embracing many of the city’s leading business and political figures.
As well as its cultural and international aspects, Europe also offers two other key advantages as a base for MBA study. The first is the opportunity to learn a new language. Although English (and perhaps more specifically American English) has now become the lingua franca of international business, the ability to deal in another language, particularly one of the very widely used ones such as Spanish and French can be invaluable. And although all international MBAs are now taught in English, living and working in a non-English speaking environment means that the local language is absorbed ‘by osmosis’. Take for example the one year program at EM Lyon in central France. Although the school is at pains to point out that a knowledge of French is not necessary for candidates, it also acknowledges that almost every graduate will come away with a high degree of fluency in the language thanks to the simple day-to-day process of eating, drinking, socialising and living in a major French city. The second advantage is that the great majority of programs in Europe only last one year rather than the traditional two year model common across the US. What is the right length is an argument without end. Advocates of the short programme maintain that it is highly concentrated whilst their opponents argue that longer course give you more time to digest lessons learned and deal with subjects in greater depth. The debate is yet to be satisfactorily resolved but given the uncertainties in the global economy the one year option will at least allow you the potential to get back into the job market equipped with your new qualification in the shortest possible time.
Matt Symonds is an international business school consultant, and author of a guide to the world’s top b-schools sponsored by Goldman Sachs and Mckinsey.