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Small classes can turn failing American school students into out-performers. So what transformation can they deliver in bright business people seeking an MBA?

“You don’t come here for a piece of paper, you come here for the learning,” says Vincent Dooley, MBA programme director at the University of Dublin’s Trinity College School of Business Studies.

“The small class size makes it inevitable that you get a lot of personal attention. The downside is that there is nowhere to hide. It’s no holiday.”

Trinity’s full-time programme, which is well rated, has only 30 participants. The University of Bath School of Management in England has a similar number on its full-time course, while Audencia Nantes Business School, in France, has a maximum of 25 students – and the current cohort has only 15.

Small-class MBAs are not common but they offer an intense alternative to the better-known programmes at many of the world’s more celebrated business schools.

Small programmes offer MBA students the personal touch

Richard Elliott, recently appointed dean of MBA programmes at Bath, says that as a teacher, he is struck by the difference in dynamics, compared with much larger programmes he has taught on at UK schools – Saïd Business School, Oxford, London Business School and Warwick Business School.

“With a group of 25 people, you are in direct, face-to-face contact,” he says. “When it is a big group, the people with the biggest voices tend to dominate. It is the difference between competition and collaboration.”

A smaller programme ensures that less vociferous students do not get left behind.

As Valérie Claude-Gaudillat, director of MBA programmes at Audencia observes from Nantes, relationships between faculty and participants become very personal. “Students really value the coaching by faculty,” she says. “It is like a personal conversation and they have individual career advisers and ready help with daily life issues.”

Graduates agree. Luis Prato, a 28-year-old Venezuelan oil industry engineer turned marketing manager who completed the Audencia MBA programme in 2008, says his group had taken on a life of its own.

“We were more than friends and colleagues. We knew exactly where we could fit when we made a decision,” he says.

Audencia deliberately builds a very international group during its selection process, with a maximum of three students from any one country except France. The result is a group where students are forced to turn cultural differences into a learning asset – a strategy reinforced by a unit on intercultural management in the early weeks.

So the school has adopted a strategy that turns its location in France into a marketing asset in a cut-throat MBA world, where bigger, better-known business schools have larger marketing budgets and global renown. Both Mr Prato and another former participant, Venezuelan-American Karen Barozzi, say the chance to improve their language skills outside the classroom (the course is taught in English) was a factor in their selection of Audencia.

All three business schools are teaching a general MBA. Audencia’s has triple accreditation from three leading ranking associations – the European Foundation for Management Development via its Equis accreditation arm, the Association of MBAs and the US-based Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. The school is one of only a small number of triple-accreditation holders worldwide.

Audencia also has a final-term unit focused on international business development, which again plays to its locational strengths, course dynamics and selection policy.

Bath’s MBA, which has been running for more than 30 years, covers the conventional topics including human resources, operations and finance. But under Prof Elliott’s guidance, it is evolving a stronger emphasis on what he calls “soft development”, particularly self-awareness and active learning.

Small classes highlight the importance of people skills – as directors and participants on small programmes repeatedly emphasise. The Bath programme features “active learning” sets comprising three or four participants, which focus on personal strengths and weaknesses.

“The students find it extremely challenging,” says Prof Elliott. “It is extremely expensive in terms of faculty teaching time, but we are very excited about it.”

This makes even more sense at Bath, because half of the participants on its MBA programme are women, an unusually high proportion. They favour the sense of security given by a smaller university in a small city, he says. But with the small group size, he observes, that makes for a cohort that is “less competitive and more collaborative. There is less testosterone in the classroom.”

The Trinity programme, set up in the 1960s, also turns the small class into a learning asset. Placing participants in small groups, it is able to turn them loose on companies and organisations and closely monitor the results.

So allied to what Mr Dooley calls “robust theory”, the participants must study a not-for-profit organisation and come up with low-cost improvements that could work. Individually, they must also become advisory angels to start-up companies on the campus Innovation Centre.

The most challenging project, however, spread over eight months, is to study an industry sector, then analyse a business within it, present the findings to its chief executive and finally work within the company to find and present “affordable and implementable” improvement opportunities. It is a tough task in a corporate environment. Companies “queue to participate”, says Mr Dooley.

The acid test of these small-class programmes, of course, is what happens to their graduates. On all three programmes, participants tend to be older than average MBA candidates.

Trinity’s Mr Dooley observes that students often come with the expectation that they are going to secure jobs as managing directors when they leave and have to be disabused of that. But thanks in part to career counselling and the contacts of the business schools, MBAs from smaller programmes seem to find appropriate jobs without great difficulty. Mr Prato for example, is now business development manager at engineering group Parker Hannefin.

Small classes do not just deliver high performance. On the evidence, they also deliver exceptional “people skills” and uncompromised employability.

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