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Travelling from Zurich airport to the University of St Gallen in a shiny, new, student-driven BMW car brings a novel dimension to the idea of a student-organised business school conference. But then, the scale of the St Gallen symposium, now in its 45th year, is arguably unprecedented for a student-run event.
In 2014 the symposium’s 300 corporate partners included big corporate names such as Accenture, Microsoft and UBS, as well as BMW, hence the use of its latest models to chauffeur participants to and from the university.
Over the past four decades the two-day symposium has become a meeting place for the great and good of European business and academia.
The 30 student organisers like to describe the symposium as the university equivalent of Davos, the meeting of the World Economic Forum, though without the glitz and global recognition. This low-key approach is one that permeates the culture of the University of St Gallen, arguably one of the business school world’s best kept secrets.
Established as a business academy in the heyday of the St Gallen embroidery industry in 1898 – a decade before Harvard Business School – the university was always a hybrid institution, says Thomas Bieger, president of St Gallen. “It always had a special position between industry and government.”
From the start the institution specialised in economics, business and policy, very much like the London School of Economics, the SSE in Stockholm and Bocconi in Milan. Today the university, which has always attracted students from Germany as well as from the local German-speaking population, has five schools – management, economics, law, social sciences and international affairs.
It is only in the past two decades that the institution has made an attempt to be a global player in business, says Prof Bieger. With the Bologna accord in the late 1990s, which changed the face of higher education in Europe, the decision was taken to launch the first programme in English at St Gallen.
Since the beginning of the 2013 academic year students have been able to study their whole programme in English. “Our Swiss students study more and more in English and this is turning the place into an international university,” says Prof Bieger.
The language change brings benefits closer to home too, says Winfried Ruigrok, dean of the school of management. “It gives francophone students a better chance of coming to St Gallen.”
The university has always had a strong undergraduate programme, in which all students study a common first year before specialising in year two. Over recent years the school has been building its masters level programmes, and now runs 15 pre-experience masters degrees, including its Master of Arts in Strategy and International Management, ranked number one in the world in the FT’s 2014 Masters in Management ranking for the past four years.
All students on the programme complete a sustainability course in order to graduate, says programme director Omid Aschari, and it has become one of the highlights of the degree. “There is an attitude that they need to serve something bigger than their own job,” says Prof Aschari. “The students do not believe in the aspirations that older people believe in. They know something needs to change.”
But perhaps one of the biggest surprises of all about the university, which nestles between the Swiss Alps and Lake Constance, is that it boasts an art collection rare among business schools. Students on campus are just as likely to study works by surrealist artists Giacometti and Miró as textbooks written by economics professors or spreadsheets devised in finance classes.