Feature of the Week

March 18, 2013 12:01 am

Latin America targets a valuable connection

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Growing interest in Latin America as a region in which to invest has presented its business schools with an opportunity – a chance to use their knowledge of the region’s markets and business practices as a marketing tool. Now, the question is how quickly these schools can start competing for applicants on the global stage.

It will not necessarily be easy. The rising economic prominence of Latin America has brought with it fresh challenges, particularly in the wake of financial difficulties in mature economies. With schools in the US and Europe facing falling applications, many have turned to Latin America as an alternative hunting ground for MBA candidates.

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“Those business schools are becoming more aggressive in recruiting here,” says Arturo Condo, president of Costa Rica’s Incae Business School. “Executive MBA programmes are being marketed very aggressively in the region and schools from the US and Europe are even establishing campuses here.”

Schools from outside the region are also forming joint ventures in Latin America, as Manchester Business School has done through its partnership with Brazil’s Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) business school.

But if competition from global schools is increasing, the other side of the coin is that interest in the region’s economic potential could spark demand for what Latin American management education institutions have to offer.

Schools have certainly been gaining international credibility in recent years. For example, 12 per cent of schools appearing in the Financial Times’ 2012 executive education rankings (open and custom) are from Latin America, with the number of Latin American schools listed in the ranking rising from two in 2000 to 10 in 2012.

Regional rankings are becoming more popular, too. “More entities in Latin America are doing rankings focused on Latin America ...” says Douglas Viehland, executive director of the Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programmes (ACBSP). This has been accompanied by more schools seeking accreditation. Latin American membership of the ACBSP has grown from one in 2005 to eight in 2009, 12 in 2010 and 18 today, says Mr Viehland.

A degree of confusion

Any international executive wanting to take an MBA in Brazil might be forgiven for being a little confused. Across the country, hundreds of low-cost MBA programmes are advertised at a wide range of educational institutions with few resembling an MBA elsewhere in the world.

“An MBA in Brazil is more like a one-year masters course at a UK university,” explains Nigel Banister, chief executive of Manchester Business School, which runs an executive MBA programme jointly with Brazil’s Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) business school.

“It’s confusing for executives in Brazil and there are massive numbers of people who take them after their first degree,” he adds.

No regulations govern what defines a Brazilian MBA programme and often the term simply denotes a masters degree that could be in subjects ranging from nursing to engineering.

“It’s a mess,” says Stavros Xanthopoylos, executive director of FGV. “You have the MBA associated with areas that are not even business.”

For FGV, the joint programme with Manchester Business School gives the school an added advantage when it comes to distinguishing itself from myriad Brazilian MBAs.

“We’re trying to position ourselves as a hub of entry into the country and the region,” adds Prof Xanthopoylos.

However, before looking outside the region for applicants, the first market Latin American schools have had to conquer is their own.

“There was a time when if you were wealthy in Latin America, you sent your children abroad to get a good education,” says Victoria Jones, executive director of the Business Association of Latin American Studies and former associate dean of international relations at FGV.

To increase their appeal to domestic students, some institutions have created overseas internships or study activities that bring international business experience to their degrees. “Schools want to offer students a way to stay in Latin America but to get global content,” says Mr Viehland.

Schools are also recognising that they have unique insights and knowledge that is hard to replicate in Europe or the US.

“The competitive angle for business schools in Latin America is that they are relevant to the local market,” says Prof Jones, who is now associate provost for global engagement at Seattle University. “While faculty may have been trained abroad, they’re bringing economic principles back and making them relevant in ways that foreign schools cannot.”

Further evidence of this can be found in course materials. “I’m seeing a lot more activity on the part of Latin American schools to develop their own case studies, as well as other teaching instruments that are based on the Latin American experience,” says Mr Viehland.

Given that more companies want to invest in the region and give their executives insight into local business environments, this “Latin American experience” could become a key marketing tool for schools.

“We have something to sell to the rest of the world – Latin America itself,” says Prof Condo. “If you want to come and do business in a region that’s growing relatively faster than the rest of the world, we have knowledge of what doing business in Latin America means.”

Access to teaching staff with knowledge and experience of economically and politically unstable environments could appeal to companies looking to invest in regions where instability is still a risk factor.

Cost may also be a factor. The relatively lower fees for a Latin American MBA – and lower living costs – could give schools an added competitive advantage.

But there are some barriers that could prevent regional schools from competing internationally for MBA recruits.

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The first is language. Much course content remains in Spanish or Portuguese. And while schools are now increasing the proportion of the MBA taught in English, this might deter some international applicants.

Some schools are working to overcome this barrier. At Incae Business School in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, in the first year, two of the course sections are in Spanish with one in English. In the second year, students mainly take electives, half of which are in English. “Our goal is to make it bilingual English-Spanish,” says Prof Condo.

However, Prof Jones identifies a further barrier for the region’s schools to overcome – an image problem.

“Something has to happen to the image of Latin American schools – both inside the region and outside – before people will believe they’re going to get good value,” she says.

Part of this will involve shifting a traditional focus on teaching rather than research. Latin American schools have fewer PhD professors than in the US or Europe – something many are addressing by sending their teaching staff overseas to gain PhDs and develop new areas of knowledge.

Prof Condo also sees potential in the idea of getting schools together to market the region’s business education collectively. “There are big opportunities. But we have to adapt.”

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