It is just an hour into the first lecture of the Trium executive MBA programme in London and LSE professor Robert Falkner, a political economist, poses a question: “Why is globalisation controversial?”

As the 69 students gather in groups of two or three to come up with ideas, it is clear that views vary right across the class.

“The only thing controversial is the flow of capital,” asserts one student. Others have a different focus and cite issues such as pollution, uncertainty and erosion of national identity.

For Eitan Zemel, vice-dean of global and executive education at NYU Stern — which devised the Trium programme along with LSE and HEC Paris — this eclectic array of ideas is exactly what makes the Trium programme so special.

“We didn’t know when we started how timely this was and how it would resonate,” he says.

Trium is one of five programmes that inhabit a class of their own at the top of the Financial Times ranking for EMBAs — MBAs for working managers. Though each of the programmes draws on the strength of two or more schools, the selling points differ.

The London Business School and Columbia programme brings together expertise at the heart of two of the world’s greatest financial centres, while the remaining three bring different perspectives on Asia and its relationship with the US and Europe.

Urs Peyer, dean of degree programmes at Insead, says one of the strengths of its joint degree with Tsinghua is the Chinese professors’ huge knowledge of China and the Chinese economy. “We appreciate the lens we get from them. In China you need that inside regulatory and political knowledge.”

Illustration for Executive MBA ranking 2015
© Andrew Baker

Trium’s strength lies in harnessing the very different world views and teaching styles of three institutions, says Prof Zemel. “We would not be able to design something close to this on our own. It’s a negatively correlated portfolio of different schools.”

Most of the 11 business schools teaching these top five programmes also have their own single school degrees. This fragmentation and diversification is in stark contrast to the full-time MBA programme, where top-ranked schools have just one programme.

In some schools this fragmentation goes even further. IE Business School in Madrid, which has EMBA programmes in multiple formats, has also seen a real growth in corporate executive degrees, says dean Santiago Iñiguez. This year the school will earn €2.8m from masters degrees tailored to specific companies’ needs.

“They combine the MBA with their general content and build in customised content,” he explains. In the Gulf region, for example, the corporate degrees include courses on Islamic finance.

Even for those schools that offer only their own EMBA degree, these executive programmes are almost invariably the most global in content and perspective of all degrees taught at business school. Even the most established EMBA programmes take the time to teach participants overseas. The Chicago Booth EMBA, for example, which lays claim to being the oldest EMBA in the world, now teaches cohorts in Chicago, London and Hong Kong.

LSE professor Robert Falkner
Global reach: LSE professor Robert Falkner sparks debate about globalisation © Anna Gordon

The move from the local to the global is not just in the US or Europe. Camelia Ilie-Cardoza is dean of executive education at Incae business school in Costa Rica, which now takes its EMBA participants to Boston in the US, Spain and China.

As a result, student numbers are up and so are revenues. Last year, there were 80 participants; this year, there are 117. Along with an increase in fees this has boosted income from the EMBA by 53 per cent compared with the previous year, says Prof Ilie-Cardoza.

The buoyant enrolment numbers are evident across the EMBA industry, in stark comparison to lacklustre enrolments on full-time MBA programmes.

One reason is that the EMBA market has been at the forefront of experimentation in technology-enhanced learning, enabling schools to attract students from far afield to their programmes and giving huge flexibility in the way programmes are delivered.

Diane Morgan, associate dean of programmes at Imperial College Business School, believes this flexibility and fragmentation will increase, with companies looking for a combination of executive short courses and some customised courses that can be combined and certified as an EMBA or other degree.

“In some ways we see applicants skewing older, in some ways we see applicants skewing younger,” she says.

Incae’s Camelia Ilie-Cardoza
From Costa Rica to China: Incae’s Camelia Ilie-Cardoza sees the appeal of a truly global EMBA

For many participants on EMBA programmes it is the wealth of experience in the participant body that is as valuable as professorial research. “When our professor looks at you, he is looking at 1,200 years of experience,” Prof Zemel tells the Trium class.

And participants are prepared to pay for it. One of the biggest changes in the EMBA market in the past decade has been participant sponsorship. Twenty years ago, almost all students were paid for by their companies; now the vast majority pay for the programme themselves.

This has forced business schools to replicate some of the services offered to MBA students.

“I see most of us in the industry putting in substantial career support,” says Morgan.

Other areas still need to change. For years, business schools have wracked their brains about how to increase the number of women on these high-level executive programmes — the number of female participants rarely rises above 30 per cent.

This year, at Yale School of Management, a record 41 per cent of the 63 participants are women, says David Bach, senior associate dean. What is more significant is the yield, he says, with 90 per cent of the women admitted to the programme actually enrolling — compared with 82 per cent for men.

Prof Bach believes Yale’s focus on business and society helped. “It is not ‘Let me accelerate your Wall Street career’.” But he also argues that the personal support given in the admissions process was critical as well. “Women have talked about it feeling much more community-orientated . . . not transactional,” he says.

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