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“Ça n’a rien á voir,” says Bernard Ramanantsoa when I ask how his experience of an MBA at HEC in 1976 might differ from that of today’s participants. In other words, the two are worlds apart.
The classes were smaller then – 70 a year compared with 200 now; there were “four or five foreign students”, compared with 85 per cent; and the programme was taught in a small classroom rather than its own large building. The content, too, has changed, he says, with better-structured teaching of analytical and leadership skills.
The biggest difference, though, is the Anglicisation of the programme. “At the time, lessons were in French,” he says. “You can’t survive if you don’t speak English now.
“If you walk into the MBA building today, everyone speaks English. You have coffee in English ... it doesn’t shock me any more, but it’s true that, compared with my memories, it has completely changed.”
Many of the most important changes have taken place in the past 16 years, while Prof Ramanantsoa, 63, has been dean. One of the developments he is most proud of is the globalisation of the school. “We have many more foreign students, many more foreign professors, and many more links with foreign companies. Half of our MBAs do not work in their country of origin.”
Prof Ramanantsoa himself is no stranger to mobility. Born in eastern France to Madagascan and French parents, he went to primary school in Marseille and secondary school in Antananarivo, the Madagascan capital, before studying at a top engineering grande école in Toulouse.
“Trium is a great experience, in that we really work in great depth and at all levels between the three institutions,” he says. “It’s hard – ‘challenging’ as you say in English – but it’s also enjoyable.”
Globalisation extends to the faculty, which has grown much more diverse (60 per cent are non-French), due in part to a concerted drive to recruit academics who carry out high-quality research. This shift required higher salaries – but pay alone was not enough. “The entry point was showing we were a research school, and that change in culture was difficult.”
If Prof Ramanantsoa has a regret, it is that the change was not fast enough. He was conscious of the need to balance research and innovation in teaching, “and it’s a shame, because research is very valuable if it’s immediately translated into pedagogical innovation”.
Something else he would have done differently, he says, is not spread the school’s academic alliances as thinly. “We say we have 119 partners … but we have to spend time on our relationship with MIT, with Tsinghua, with London School of Economics.
“There are 10 or so very important partners that we must work with more ... we haven’t focused fast enough on those … with which we do much more than exchanges, those with which we do double degrees, programmes in common.”
Another regret is that he has less contact with students now that he takes only one doctorate class. “I meet students either when there are big problems, or when they come to talk to me about projects, which is very interesting. But you know, there are different programmes, there is the grande école. I don’t know them all.”
Asked about influences, Prof Ramanantsoa cites Antonio Borges of the IMF, a former dean of Insead. “We spent many dinners together ... what marked me was the importance of strategy,” he says. “We spoke of the question of development, of size.” Prof Ramanantsoa made a conscious decision not to follow Insead’s example in terms of expansion, “because you want participants to know each other”.
“But obviously, if you can pass to an intake of 1,000, like Insead, you have a bigger budget.” Tempting as that sounds, he assures me there are no such plans at HEC.
View profiles of top deans at www.ft.com/deans