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For an insight into the special role of Stockholm School of Economics in Swedish business life, a glance at its board members is a good place to start. Among them are Jacob Wallenberg and Carl-Johan Bonnier, representing two of Sweden’s most powerful business families, and other senior figures with ties to companies including Volvo, Sandvik and Stora Enso.

The well-connected boardroom reflects the 101-year-old school’s history as a semi-official training ground for each new generation of Swedish business and financial leaders. Alumni range from Ruben Rausing, the late co-founder of Tetra Pak, the packaging group, to Stefan Ingves, current governor of the Swedish central bank.

With such stellar domestic credentials, there has never been much doubt over its status as Sweden’s top business school, and for a long time that appeared to be the limit of its ambitions. But as Swedish business has gone global, SSE has faced pressure to raise its sights.

“The goal is to be one of Europe’s leading business schools, and part of that is to become more international,” says Lars Bergman, SSE president.

The process started in the 1990s when the school made an early move into the newly opened economies of eastern Europe by setting up satellite campuses in Riga, Moscow and St Petersburg.

More recently, it has overhauled its academic programmes to bring them into line with standards for higher education set out in the Bologna Accord – a move that was crucial for increased international recognition for its MBAs.

This strategy has helped SSE climb the Financial Times ranking of European business schools, from 32nd when Prof Bergman took over in 2004 to 19th this year.

One of the most significant changes was the adoption of English as the exclusive language for all masters degrees, greatly broadening the school’s appeal. The number of nationalities represented in the student body has increased from five to almost 30 since the change.

The jewel in SSE’s crown is its executive MBA programme, offered to experienced professionals looking for a springboard for entering senior management. Most participants are sponsored by their employers for the two-year, part-time course, which costs SKr395,000 ($57,600) and starts each January.

The annual intake was recently cut from 80 to 40 students in a bid to raise standards, in keeping with the elite reputation of a school that has a total of 2,000 students enrolled in courses from undergraduate to doctorate level.

Lars Strannegård, dean of MBA programmes at SSE, says close ties to Swedish business allows the school to give students greater real-life experience than some rivals.

“A lot of our teaching is done in live situations inside real companies,” he says. “This makes students realise you cannot apply a generic model to every situation.”

In addition to its main Stockholm-based course, SSE also offers executive MBAs in Latvia and Russia. Among the current students is Stefan Climent, 44, a Russian-based manager for Ruukki, the Finnish metals group, who spends about one week a month pursuing a part-time executive MBA in Moscow and St Petersburg. “There are a lot of Russian MBAs but I wouldn’t grade them at the same level as SSE’s,” he says. “The fact that the school is more than 100 years old makes it something special to be part of.”

Unlike many business schools, SSE is privately run and not part of a bigger university. Prof Bergman says this gives it more autonomy than some of its competitors. Most of its financing comes from capital income generated by the original endowment provided by business donors to establish the school in 1909, topped up by ongoing corporate contributions. Only 20 per cent of its funding comes from government.

Critics might question whether such a tight relationship with the local business establishment is entirely healthy. Is it possible to have truly independent teaching and research in a school that owes its existence to benefactors such as the Wallenberg family, whose interests include Ericsson, Electrolux, AstraZeneca and Scandinavian Airlines?

Prof Bergman says he has never experienced any ethical conflicts. “The Wallenberg family has always recognised that high-quality education is in their interests, and high-quality education requires independence and integrity.”

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