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Today the European university system is facing bigger changes than at any time in the past 100 years and with it will come immense challenges for management education generally and the MBA in particular.

Nowhere are the changes more controversial than in France, where a two-tier higher education system is having to face the challenge of EU directives, French government intervention and confusion in the marketplace that is second to none.

France was one of the first countries to sign up to the Bologna agreement in 1999 which was designed to implement a single style of degree system across Europe.

The biggest problem for the country is that it already has two different styles of higher education: the university system, open to all who qualify; and the Grandes Ecoles, the elite institutions that specialise in just two subjects, engineering and business.

The Bologna agreement requires colleges and universities to split their five-year degree programmes into a bachelor and masters programme, enabling students to change universities after their undergraduate degree. The system can be relatively easily implemented by the French universities, but the route to getting the Grande Ecole diploma in business involves spending two years in a preparatory school followed by three years in the business school.

There is a general acceptance that a masters degree of some sort can replace the traditional Grande Ecole diploma but most of these 35 elite business schools believe they will be unable to offer a bachelors degree if the students have been in the institution for only a year.

But most critical of all is what this new masters degree is called.

Schools such as HEC, ESCP-EAP, EM Lyon and Audencia in Nantes have decided to give their graduates a master or science degree in management.

But Essec, one of the top two Parisian schools, has decided its degree will be an MBA, and it has gathered a small band of followers who are adopting the MBA mark for this programme. There is also a proliferation of pre-experience MBA programmes now in universities that offer management programmes, usually at a substantially lower price than the Grandes Ecoles.

Nicolas Mottis, dean for MBA programmes at Essec, argues that graduates from its Grande Ecole programme work for up to two years in companies during their degree – so extending their three years academic work at Essec, effectively to stay at the business school for nearly five years. So, they do have work experience, he says.

Jean-Pierre Helfer, dean at Audencia, takes a different view.

At his school 90 per cent of students on the Grande Ecole programme work for 20 months alongside their studies, giving them similar work experience to Essec graduates.

But this experience is substantially different from the experience he expects from his MBA students.

“They [the Grande Ecole students] have never held large responsibilities in a company,” he says. “The MBA is for students who have had responsibilities in a company.”

The problem in France is that there is no body to define which degree qualifies as an MBA. Prof Helfer chairs the commission that bears his name and was set up to measure the quality of masters programmes offered in France. But the commission has no remit to rule on the name of the programme.

So too, most of the international accreditation bodies evaluate the quality of the teaching and resources, they do not rule on the name given to the programme. So Essec can rightly point out that not only was it accredited by Equis, the European organisation, but was the first European school to be accredited by the AACSB, the American accreditation body. (It has not been accredited by the London-based Association of MBAs, which accredits only the MBA degree.)

HEC in Paris believes it will be the market, not the government or the accrediting bodies, that will establish the criteria for the degree, says Valérie Gauthier, MBA director. “The market dictates everything,” she says. “When the market has established a number of standards then the rules and standards will stand by themselves. It is the market that decides.”

Part of the issue in France is that all business schools there recognise they need the Grande Ecole programme to compete nationally but an MBA to compete internationally. Most schools believe the MBA needs to be taught in English.

But while the in-fighting continues along the avenues of Paris most Grandes Ecoles now recognise that it is not just a case of them competing internationally, through the MBA, but other institutions poaching their Grande Ecole students to their competing masters programmes.

This is both a challenge and an opportunity, believes Bernard Ramanantsoa, dean at HEC. With 2.4m students graduating from bachelor programmes in Europe by 2010, there is enormous opportunity to attract masters students from other institutions. “This is going to change the face of the MSc,” he says.

Prof Helfer, on the other hand, is concerned that if other institutions poach his students it will fundamentally affect the quality of the Grande Ecole experience. “We give them [the Grande Ecole students] culture and philosophy,” he says. “We feel our students are in the family for a long time. This is why we are so well-connected with companies.”

In addition to all these changes the French business schools now also have to implement a French government initiative to validate work experience as credits towards their degrees.

At a basic level this would mean a qualified accountant could skip accountancy classes on the MBA, for example, but the Grandes Ecoles would have to demonstrate they had the processes in place to assess applicants’ skills in order to receive national accreditation – which the business schools need if their students are to get financial aid.

Though onerous, Daniel Evans, director of international executive programmes at EM Lyon, believes the scheme has some advantages. “What’s nice is that all programmes have to define skills achieved. So it [the assessment] is not based on faculty but on applicable skills.” Mr Evans believes this is the direction in which MBA degrees should be moving.

He fears the lack of clarity about the MBA degree will mean that many programmes may go out of business in the coming years. Already in 2004 two business schools, Edhec, headquartered in Lille, and Theseus, near Nice, have decided to merge. Theseus will now be located in a new building next to Nice airport and Edhec will retain the Theseus brand for the MBA programme.

France may be facing contradictions in developing the MBA market, but at least an MBA degree is acknowledged to mean a Masters in Business Administration. In Germany even this is not clear.

So, recruiters beware: anyone claiming an MBA on their CV might actually hold a Master of Bond Allocation or even a Master of Baby Adoption.

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