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Politicians often seem to ride on the coat tails of business and education pioneers. When Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, unveiled his ambitions for a Mediterranean union, he was in part seeking an institutional framework for a burgeoning reality.
Europe’s faster-growing southern neighbours represent an economic opportunity that some of the continent’s companies and educational establishments have been pursuing energetically for decades.
But changing times, needs and habits seem to be turning the Maghreb (northern Africa) countries into a potential area of expansion that few French business schools choose to ignore.
For them, the Mediterranean union, a planned European Union partnership, ultimately offers the hope of increased state funding. But as Professor Jean-François Fiorina, who heads the Maghreb Group at the association of French Grandes Ecoles, [management and technology schools], observes, government grants would merely be icing on the cake.
“Pretty much every French business school has ties of some kind with institutions in the Maghreb,” he says.
As growth in Europe stalls, interest in the African continent is quickening. In April last year, Insead at Fontainebleau launched its “Africa initiative” designed to bring more African talent and content into Insead programmes and build knowledge links with African networks. And Hec professors travel from Paris to teach some seminars at the Ecole Supérieure Algérienne des Affaires business school in Algiers.
Some French business schools are already involved in establishing campuses, developing joint teaching programmes or building research ties in the Maghreb. Others use North African educational institutions as “supermarkets” for their courses.
History plays a role, since many countries in North and West Africa were once French colonies or protectorates. In recent decades, immigration has replaced colonisation as a mechanism creating ties between French people and the region.
But technology and entrepreneurship have played a vital part in the growing courtship between Prof Fiorina’s school, Grenoble EM, where he is head of graduate business programmes and key Maghreb peers. First, French companies, deeply entrenched in much of north and west Africa, have been steadily reducing their use of expatriate staff in operations in those regions. This has created a need for local people with familiar French training and qualifications to drive corporate expansion.
According to Jacques Digout, head of Maghreb programmes at Groupe ESC-Toulouse business school, Moroccan managers with French qualifications are paid markedly higher salaries, creating strong demand for courses.
Second, and more recently, is the transformation of communications, with broadband speeds and services across much of Morocco on a par with those in metropolitan France. Airline competition is also changing academic relations. Prof Fiorina says travelling from Lyon to Casablanca “now costs less than taking the TGV [train] to Paris and takes no longer”.
He should know. Grenoble EM has what amounts to a second campus at the Ecole Supérieure du Commerce et des Affaires de Casablanca, where 300 students follow Grenoble programmes taught largely by Grenoble staff. The two schools have a joint masters degree in industrial purchasing and logistics. Collaboration is so entrenched that the schools are establishing a shared IT system, based in Casablanca.
The Esca partnership is developing into a Casablanca business education hub serving all of Francophone Africa, says Prof Fiorina, with rising enrolments from south of the Sahara. Although students with money and connections may still prefer courses in the US or UK, from where they may not return, able students seeking qualifications to win jobs in the region find local courses more affordable and accessible and equally trusted by local employers.
The Grenoble/Esca collaboration also covers research into the impact of technology and innovation in emerging markets and a tie-up with a Casablanca technology institute.
Grenoble EM has forged close ties with the Institute Supérieur de Gestion at Sousse in Tunisia, one of a group of Maghreb management schools that have joined Grenoble EM to work on issues of entrepreneurship and international development. The final element is the popularity of Grenoble EM’s free Open Educational Resources online courses. Many of the 4,000 online management students are from the Maghreb.
The perspective that Morocco is the most promising location to develop a Maghreb campus is widely shared. Prof Digout is working hard to extend relationships that his school has been building since 1995.
Esc-Toulouse has 116 students taking two part-time masters degrees, in marketing and audit/financial controls, on a campus at the French Chamber of Commerce of Morocco in Casablanca. Half of the professors are local and the rest drawn from other ESC-Toulouse campuses.
The Toulouse management school group is awaiting Moroccan approval to offer its core Grande Ecole Programme, leading to a masters degree in business, in Casablanca this year. Prof Digout says that, with economic growth of 5.3 per cent expected in Morocco this year against a likely economic standstill in France and many potential students being able to pay their way on local programmes, Morocco is a promising business education market.
Esc-Toulouse is also helping develop programmes at the Institut National de Commerce in Algiers. But its own Maghreb development will focus on Casablanca, which will become a third Esc-Toulouse campus, joining Toulouse and Barcelona.
Developing a Maghreb campus makes business sense and offers an opportunity to develop the multicultural nature of programmes offered by the Toulouse school, says Prof Digout.
Thami Ghorfi, chief executive of Esca School of Management in Casablanca, believes Morocco is becoming a business education hub for North and West Africa.
Esca’s vision has spurred it to forge links with more than 12 partner business schools round the world. The international context is important, says Mr Ghorfi.
“Companies from all over the world want to know how to deal with the Middle East and North African region, with Arab countries, and with Muslim countries. Morocco is at the western end of the Arab world, at the frontier with the west.
“We have an opportunity to help students and executives from each side of that frontier understand one another’s markets.”
Mr Sarkozy and many French business professors clearly agree.