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Tom Begley did not mince his words when he retired after nine years as dean of the Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School at University College Dublin. In a newspaper interview in July, he ridiculed the quality of Irish students, blaming the school exam system – the so-called leaving cert – that, he said, “should be taken out into a field and blown up”.

As for business education, he said the authorities had to rationalise the number of schools. Smurfit was “the most advanced but we do not have the capability with current investment levels to get to the top of our game”, he said, adding: “We need to figure it out in a way that doesn’t victimise other business schools. But if you begin to invest more resources in your top school, it will develop top-20 world-class capabilities.”

It was a pretty harsh analysis from such a respected overseas academic, even one familiar with the challenges of running a business school.

Of Ireland’s five business schools today, Smurfit, which opened in 1991, is probably the best known. Founded with a donation from Michael Smurfit, the Monaco-based Irish cardboard box manufacturer, it is located on the site of the former Sisters of Mercy College in south Dublin and retains a monastic air, with wood panelling and stained-glass windows.

It offers one-year full-time and two-year part-time MBA courses and has an executive MBA programme, run over two years, along with a variety of MSc courses.

There are 70 full-time and 40 “adjunct” or part-time staff for a student cohort of 1,000 on all courses. The MBA class comprises about 50 students, of which 30-35 per cent are non-Irish.

“We brand ourselves as Ireland’s international business school, so the international cohort is vital to justify that sort of moniker,” says Patrick T. Gibbons (above), professor of strategic management and acting dean.

Sean Murray, director of marketing, says the biggest issue for students is finance. “Banks aren’t lending [on] anything like the scale they were, and where they are lending it’s under much more stringent conditions.”

Corporate sponsorship for part-time MBAs is also less readily available, he says.

He says the “big thrust” in the past three years has been to attract scholarships. The school’s newly launched Aspire scholarships, funded by an anonymous donor, help students from less well-off backgrounds.

Like many business schools in the troubled eurozone, Smurfit has slipped in the rankings but is still 78th in the 2011 FT global MBA ranking and 22nd in Europe.

Says Murray: “If you look back at the 11 years since we’ve run our full-time MBA and you look at the top 100 rankings in the FT, there are only 45 schools in the world that would consistently be in that ranking – and we’re one of them. That requires a lot of work.”

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