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The most sweeping change to affect European business schools in a generation is just five years away at which time full implementation of the Bologna accord should harmonise the continent’s disparate higher education into a single system of degrees.

With it will come a raft of opportunities as well as challenges. The schools’ response will determine the model of business education for the foreseeable future, as well as determining where these schools will place themselves in the market: as global provider or niche school.

Alongside these changes is the well-documented hunger for management education in India and China. While many masters programmes launched in Europe ahead of the implementation of the Bologna accord hope to recruit students from Asia, European schools must appreciate that China and India are establishing home-grown programmes to persuade students of the merits of studying in their home country. European programmes must be of the highest calibre to compete against cheaper offerings from other regions.

Some schools and universities rely too heavily on students from certain countries, warns Jonathan Slack, chief executive of the UK’s Association of Business Schools. If those students were to study in their home country, where courses are cheaper, it could have a detrimental effect on some schools.

He also sounds a note of caution about the financial cost of implementing the Bologna accord.

While US schools have large endowments and also a history of philanthropy from generous alumni, this is not the case in the UK. They do not have a similar pool of resources upon which to draw, he says. One of the real issues of Bologna, he points out, is the cost of the reforms. While some governments are providing funding, others are not and for business schools there will be significant costs.

However, at Iese Business School in Barcelona, dean Jordi Canals is optimistic, both about the future of the MBA in Europe and the impact of the Bologna accord on it.

He says the European MBA market is more stable than its US counterpart and once Bologna is fully implemented it will establish a stronger sense of mobility for European students.

He says: “I think Bologna will make things more transparent and the MBA degree will be strengthened and protected in brand awareness.” Currently, he says, some schools call their pre-experience general management masters programmes an MBA. After Bologna, programmes will be far more transparent and well- defined.

That the MBA market in Europe is healthy is backed by figures from the US-based Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). During the first 10 months of this year, GMAC, which administers the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), a requisite for entry to most business schools, has seen the numbers inside the US taking the test increase by 0.16 per cent against the same period last year. However, outside the US, the number has risen substantially and by late last month was up 29 per cent overall in the rest of the world, says Dave Wilson, the president of GMAC.

The flat US figure can be explained by the fact that the US is a very mature market, says Mr Wilson. In addition, he says, the US is also facing significant competition from Europe, Asia and Canada.

“We are starting to see global competition in the MBA marketplace for the first time and it is attracting a lot of attention outside the US, ” he says.

The buoyancy of the market outside the US has been caused, certainly in part, by the greater visibility of media rankings that place European schools alongside top-ranked US ones, such as the Financial Times rankings.

This has combined with student realisation that in a global workplace, experience outside the home country is necessary, he says.

Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association for MBAs, the UK- based accrediting body, also sees a dynamic market.

“The market is levelling out. However, what is more interesting is the changes taking place within the MBA market.”

She expects a decline in the full-time MBA as part-time, distance learning and the executive MBA become more popular and flexible. “I think these changes are very positive as it demonstrates that the MBA is responding to the changing market.”

At London Business School, ranked number one in the Financial Times European Business School ranking 2005, the school has responded to demand and altered its full-time MBA “to make more choice for people”, says Julia Tyler, director of the full-time programme.

“We have redefined the core,” she says.

For example, accountants are now able to skip the basic accountancy section of the course, while economists can get a waiver for the basic economics section of the programme.

Electives have been increased, with participants able to take up to a maximum of 12.

If students work “like mad”, says Ms Tyler, they can complete their MBA in 15 months.

The programme, she says, now puts more emphasis on flexibility of mind and self responsibility.

In schools throughout Europe, corporate and social responsibility remain high on the agenda.

The biennial Beyond Grey Pinstripes survey, issued jointly by the World Resources Institute and the Aspen Institute, finds an increasing number of business schools offer courses in ethics, corporate social responsibility or environmental sustainability.

The report ranked 30 MBA programmes according to their efforts to prepare graduates on social and environmental stewardship in business. Esade in Spain had its MBA programme ranked second after Stanford in the US.

The European Foundation for Management Development is also adopting a more bullish approach to global responsibility and has established the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative – a group of senior representatives from business schools, companies and centres for leadership learning.

Its aim is to promote and develop globally responsible leadership through piloting best practice approaches in schools and companies so executives know what is expected of them and practice it so they become role models of business behaviour.

“Global responsibility is the new necessity for companies. This will not create a society of goodies or softies, but one in which a more acceptable but still effective business community can exist,” says Ray van Schaik, president of EFMD.

After the slack years of the early part of the decade, MBA recruitment appears to be improving, with investment banks and consultancies once again looking for MBAs.

Jonathon Ringer, a partner in the London office of Bain & Company, a global business consulting firm, who also leads Bain London’s recruiting, says the company is very happy with its MBA recruits.

“They are a crucial part of the firm and we can get great people.”

Bain recruits from the top 10 to 15 schools in the US and the top six in Europe and has maintained its recruitment level.

Mr Ringer says Bain recruits between 20 and 30 MBAs a year. This year, he adds, Bain expects double-digit growth in global hiring from business schools.

So from a European perspective the MBA market is certainly buoyant.

Sir Paul Judge, president of the Association of MBAs told the association’s corporate forum recently that “the MBA is the world’s most recognised international qualification”.

Few would quibble with that statement. And, while the degree’s structure and delivery may alter, the MBA is undoubtedly sufficiently flexible to adapt to the changes brought by the Bologna accord.

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