September 20, 2010 12:12 am

From the editor: why French schools dominate the rankings

Are some academic disciplines more prestigious than others? And does the pecking order depend on where you are in the world? A few years ago in India, I had dinner with a group of professors from one of the business schools. As the evening progressed, the conversation moved to the subject of our children. They asked what my elder son wanted to study at university. I replied that he would probably choose history. They were stunned: “Do people in England still study history?”

They went on to explain that, in India, it was almost unheard of to study the arts. Their children were planning to be doctors or engineers or, at the very least, economists. It led me to wonder why some professions – particularly business and management – are so much more popular in some countries than others.

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This is not just an issue of academic curiosity; it is particularly relevant to the FT Masters in Management ranking, the topic of this magazine, which is dominated by French business schools; 17 of the top 65 masters in management programmes (and five in the top 10) are French.

The dominance of the French grandes écoles will be no surprise to those who understand the idiosyncratic French higher education system. Essentially, anyone who passes “le bac” at high school is entitled to a place at university. But those who want to study at the elite and often expensive grandes écoles have a further hurdle in the form of two years of specialist training, followed by a competitive examination.

The great and the good of the French establishment invariably hail from these schools. And as the fear of unemployment hits France’s middle class, parents are willing to invest whatever it takes to buy their offspring an education that will give them a leg up in the job market, increasing competition for places. The issue is, les grandes écoles teach only two subjects: engineering and business. If you want to study philosophy or literature, medicine or law, then it’s the state university system for you.

All this is peculiarly French. So what about the US; what degrees get you to the top there? Law? Business? It would seem so. Barack Obama, of course, is a lawyer, while George W. Bush was at Harvard Business School. In Germany, famed for its technical know-how, Angela Merkel, the chancellor, is a scientist – she read physics at university. India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is an economist.

The really interesting country is the UK. What degrees get you to the top in Blighty? The answer is that timeless classic, Oxford’s PPE degree – politics, philosophy and economics. Not only does David Cameron hold this degree, but so do five other Conservative members of the coalition: William Hague, foreign secretary; Sir George Young, leader of the Commons; Philip Hammond, transport secretary; and Jeremy Hunt, secretary for everything from culture and media to the Olympics. Perhaps of most interest is David Willetts, minister for business, innovation and skills: the man who determines policy for business schools!

Business degrees are few and far between among the UK elite (although to be fair, Hague does have an MBA from Insead). Given this, it is perhaps surprising that British business schools do so well in the FT MiM ranking. Of the 65 schools ranked, 11 are British, and the UK is second only to France in the number of schools represented.

Topping the list for the UK is the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), ranked seventh in the world this year. The school is famous around the world for its rigorous approach to the social sciences, but its recently created department of management has been treated with suspicion by many inside and outside the institution. Having eschewed business for decades, the LSE has only recently decided that it wants to play.

The view that management is not really a “proper” academic subject has dogged British business schools for years and still permeates the mind-set of many corporate boards. The question remains: why have UK schools done so well in the MiM ranking?

The answer is a salutary one, best exemplified by the LSE: 100 per cent of students on its MiM programme are from outside the UK. Unlike the grandes écoles, where French students dominate, Britain’s best business schools are training overseas students.

Of course, it is not all bad news for the UK; it shows the high regard in which a UK education is held worldwide. As for my son, I am heartened to know that – whatever he chooses to study – there will always be somewhere in the world where his qualifications will be appreciated.

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