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When Hülya Akgedik began her Master in European Business degree at the Paris campus of ESCP Europe, she could hardly have imagined her course would involve helping Syrian refugees settle in France.
But the unfolding migration crisis has seen a dozen students from the business school work with the refugee charity L’insertion du Coeur to help integrate migrants into French society — a need that is under even greater focus in the wake of last month’s attacks in Paris.
“When we first met students from Syria, we felt affected by the situation and their stories,” says Akgedik, who is originally from Turkey. “We knew we wanted to help them feel welcome in our school and give them the opportunity to start a new life.”
While European business schools have been mired in problems emanating from the eurozone crisis for the past few years, in 2015 Europe’s best business brains switched their attention from coinage to community, as the continent’s immigration systems buckled.
Akgedik, who is one of a team involved in creating a database of the different profiles and needs of refugees, sees no easing of this pressure. “We will have to bring efficient solutions to integrate them socially and professionally.”
The immediate crisis plays to the traditional strengths of European business schools, famed for their diversity and ability to attract international students and professors alike to teach courses in luxury goods, fashion and food, as well as the more conventional business courses.
Student job placement is also becoming more international, says Nico van den Brink, career services director at Spanish business school Iese. This year 21 per cent of the school’s MBA graduates will get their first job in Asia, up from 13 per cent in 2014. Placements in the Middle East and Africa are also increasing.
To meet demand the school had to expand its network of careers offices. “Previously all career services were in Spain; now they are [also] in New York, São Paolo, Hong Kong and Singapore,” he says. “This helps people find roles in these areas.”
There are still some barriers to an open international job market, though, most notably in China. “It is changing and some companies are opening up, but in many cases Mandarin is still a requirement,” points out Prof van den Brink. “It is probably easier for a European to get a job in the US or an American to get a job in Europe than for a non-Asian to find a role in Asia.”
International students, course content and job searches are one area where European business schools are more highly rated than their North American counterparts, but there are others too, says Peter Todd, who was appointed dean of HEC Paris this summer and was formerly dean of the Desautels school at McGill University in Montreal.
In his few months at HEC Paris he has identified three strengths of the school he had not expected. “When I looked at the things that are going on that are particularly noteworthy, one would be entrepreneurship,” he says. “I haven’t seen as many business students in North America creating start-ups. I think in North American universities business creation is driven by the engineering departments and the sciences.”
The second surprise for Prof Todd was the relationship between the business school and its alumni. “I thought North American business schools had a better history of leveraging alumni. Here I’ve found a group of very senior alumni who are very involved,” he says. “That seems to have fostered an engagement in a very positive way.”
Positive, but peculiarly European, he says. “Here [in France] it [the engagement] is more intellectual. Alumni want to talk about developing the research. No one in North America ever approached me about that.”
And the third surprise? “Seeing up close and personal the power of the masters in management degree and how it is becoming a European export.”
Across the English Channel in London, Cass Business School has also appointed a North American dean, Marianne Lewis, formerly of the University of Cincinnati’s College of Business. The biggest differences she sees in business education between the two continents are in the expectations and identification of students with their schools.
“The greatest strength [in Europe] is a focus on academic rigour,” she says. “[European business schools] do rigour so well in the classroom. That’s a great strength to build on.”
In the US, state funding for business schools has been declining for years and rising fees have put pressure on business schools to create new teaching facilities and accommodation buildings and stronger career services.
“The higher the fees, the greater the expectations,” she says. “As fees go up, students do — and should — expect great job opportunities.”
Prof Lewis believes it is only a matter of time before European business schools copy their US counterparts. “I think we’ll head down that route very quickly, but I hope Europe can do it better by holding to the academic excellence.”
One area in which she hopes this emulation does work is branding — something that is reinforced in US universities through their support for their football and baseball teams, for example. “If you go to a stronger US university, everyone is wearing the brand. If you want to keep a strong alumni network, you have to have a strong brand.”
Meanwhile, in the short term, it is the continuing refugee crisis that is likely to tax the ingenuity of business students, says Amaury de Buchet, affiliate professor at ESCP Europe. The context and immediacy of the situation lend the for-credit projects at ESCP a real appeal, he says. “This thing is changing every day. It is not like any other course that has set teaching and case studies.”
Prof de Buchet believes the experience will have a profound effect on today’s business students. “Students bond together a lot more, they are more curious, they react much faster,” he says. “Looking forward, it is going to change the way they view being a European.”
Who studies in Europe?
About 30,000 students enrolled in the latest intakes for the masters in management, MBA and executive MBA programmes assessed in the 2015 Financial Times European Business School ranking, writes Laurent Ortmans.
A large majority of these (73 per cent) enrolled on MiM programmes, with another 15 per cent signing up for MBAs and the remaining 12 per cent EMBAs. Just under a third (30 per cent) of these students are from outside Europe — from more than 100 different countries in total, with the largest contingent originating from Asia, which accounts for 53 per cent of non-European students.
By far the largest single-country group are the almost 2,000 Chinese students, accounting for 22 per cent of non-European students. Indian students make up 14 per cent of all non-Europeans, followed by those from the US and Morocco (both 7 per cent). The UK is the main destination for students from China, India and the US, while Moroccans head mainly for France.
The UK attracted about 55 per cent of students on MBA and EMBA programmes, while another 20 per cent went to France. It is the reverse for MiM programmes: about 60 per cent of non-European students were enrolled in France and 20 per in the UK. Spain is the third most popular country for students from outside Europe, attracting about 45 per cent of those from Latin America.
MBA programmes are the most international, bringing in 70 per cent of non-European students, while MiMs are less diverse, at 45 per cent. However, excluding joint programmes delivered outside Europe, EMBA programmes — by virtue of being aimed at working executives — attract only a quarter of their students from outside Europe.