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While the US is often seen as the birthplace of modern management education, the resurgent nationalism gripping America throws a spotlight on Europe’s historical strengths — and fresh opportunities to reassert its position.
The two-year full-time American MBA long gloried in global success, exporting its model and drawing in students from around the world. But older variants of business education in Europe are proving resilient and resurgent.
The most recent data from the Graduate Management Admissions Council, the body that administers the GMAT admission test, shows a decline in MBA applications to US business schools. This partly reflects slowing domestic demand but also hesitation among applicants from abroad.
Alongside concern over the costs of US qualifications, foreign students cite perceptions about — and bad experiences of — the difficulty of gaining visas to study and work in the country. There are also worries about the political mood, discrimination and even fears for personal safety at a time of rising populism under president Donald Trump.
There are similar undercurrents in Europe, not least in the UK since the 2016 Brexit referendum. Yet across the EU, there is still considerable variety and a relatively open climate for students from other countries and continents, which is driving demand for business education.
France often has a reputation for statism and anti-capitalist views, yet its economy remains one of the largest in the world. Its business schools, some dating from the 19th century, are among the longest established and most successful. Six of the top 20 schools in the composite ranking of different business qualifications in this FT report are French, with HEC rated top overall.
The UK continues to attract many foreign students to its top institutions, led by London Business School, reflecting the country’s longstanding reputation in education, the appeal of native English-language teaching and the continued concentration and lure of jobs in careers such as finance and consulting, to which elite schools offer easier access. LBS and five other UK business schools feature in the European top 20. Despite the country’s planned imminent exit from the EU, the recent extension to two years of the post-study work visa granted to non-EU students — long opposed while Theresa May was home secretary and prime minister — is helping to sustain the UK’s appeal. The current government’s global education strategy is centred on attracting greater numbers to the country.
Other parts of Europe stand out in different ways. Schools in the Nordic countries, as well as in the Netherlands, have a notable focus on sustainability. Some are proving to be pioneers in launching courses around the UN’s sustainable development goals and student-led activities that reflect the growing interest of the current generation of students in social purpose.
Germany long eschewed the MBA, but the country’s strength in engineering and science is providing fresh appeal as the appetite for computing, data science and analytics increases. Schools in Switzerland continue to rank well, as do several in Spain.
Many of these countries’ institutions nurture students — and faculty — who are typically more international, multicultural and multilingual than their counterparts in the US, Asia and elsewhere. The costs of education, including the shorter masters-in-management degree born in Europe, are also lower.
Europe offers varied operational models too. Some of the best business schools, including most of the French schools, London Business School and IMD in Switzerland, are standalone, arguably freed of broader distractions. Others are departments of universities, tapping their resources.
If demand from students is high, so too is interest in Europe among business education providers elsewhere. Alongside the European branches of US schools such as Chicago Booth, institutions from emerging economies are expanding, to offer both an EU experience to their own students and a taste of their business culture at a lower cost to students from Europe. In 2015, for example, China Europe International Business School in Shanghai bought the Lorange Institute of Business in Zurich and this year doubled its size. Peking University HSBC Business School acquired a building outside Oxford in the UK to establish a presence in 2017, while in the same year Weidong, a Chinese distance-learning company, bought 70 per cent of Brest Business School in France.
Any sense of complacency about the excellence of European business education would be misplaced. The secret of Europe’s institutions is a willingness to be open to the world, whether reflecting their countries’ traditional cross-border trade and political links, or policies to welcome immigrants, including refugees.
It should be no surprise that most of the top-rated institutions not only recruit staff and students internationally but increasingly offer partnerships, placements and even joint degrees with institutions beyond their own continent. That will be the key to their future resilience.
Andrew Jack is the FT’s global education editor
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