© Nick Lowndes

Good things come to those who wait, they say. After five years of constant uncertainty and frequent gloom, Europe’s top business schools are hoping that the mantra applies to them, and that 2014 will see a new lease of life for business education in Europe.

And all the signs from 2013 are that things may be looking up. Executive education activity, often seen as the bellwether of economic recovery, is showing real improvement, says Kai Peters, chief executive of the UK’s Ashridge Business School. After “five years of misery”, the market has gone “insane”, he says. “We wrote more proposals in August than any month ever, let alone summer months.”

It is a view endorsed at IMD, one of Europe’s other top executive education specialists, by president Dominique Turpin. “Every company I speak with talks about attracting talent. There is plenty of middle management available but it is people who will make a difference in uncertain conditions.”

There are other signs that the market is on the mend. Two of the most surprising developments in recent months have been the extent of business school philanthropy, particularly in the UK, and the ability of top European schools to attract professors from the US to work in Europe.

Following several fallow fundraising years for most European schools, London Business School announced in September that it had received £10m from businessman Nathan Kirsh towards the school’s endowment. This was swiftly followed by £25m from Idan Ofer, formerly Israel’s richest man, plus a further £34m from a range of investors, towards the refurbishment of the school’s latest building, Old Marylebone Town Hall.

Earlier in the year the business school at Imperial College London received more than £20m from Brevan Howard, the hedge fund founded by Alan Howard, an alumnus of Imperial. Meanwhile at the Saïd school at the University of Oxford, Bill Ackman’s Pershing Square Foundation gave £4.5m for student scholarships.

Both Saïd and Imperial business schools have been able to attract top faculty to the schools, most notably from North America. This is particularly important, says Peter Tufano, dean at the Saïd school, and himself a Harvard man, because most of the top talent is the other side of the pond. Recently the school has made four appointments, three of whom are academics working in North America.

The lure of the Brevan Howard Centre for Financial Analysis has enabled Imperial to attract two top finance professors from the US, not to mention its new dean, Anand Anandalingam. Franklin Allen, professor of finance and economics at the Wharton school at the University of Pennsylvania, will be the Brevan Howard centre’s executive director and Douglas Gale, professor of economics at New York University will be director of research. Both were educated in the UK.

On degree programmes the top schools are also seeing numbers rise again after a torrid few years. “Our student numbers went up [this year] and our applications went up,” says Prof Tufano at Oxford.

Some of the biggest areas of growth in recent years have been in pre-experience masters degrees rather than the post-experience MBA. These include degrees in marketing, accountancy, finance and general management. Driving the growth of finance programmes has been students from Asia, especially China. Indeed half the students on the masters in finance degrees ranked by the Financial Times in 2013 were from Asia.

Even in southern Europe, where economies have been slow to rebound, applications from international students are strong for masters programmes, says João Amaro de Matos, associate dean for international development at Nova School of Business and Economics in Portugal. “Applications from overseas students at the masters level has increased by 50 per cent,” he says.

But the MBA is still the flagship programme for most European business schools, believes Bernard Ramanantsoa, dean of HEC Paris.

“If you talk with colleagues in the US, you just don’t exist if you don’t have an MBA.”

As the market emerges from recession, what is clear is that the jobs that students pursue on graduation are changing, particularly for MBA graduates. Oxford and LBS both report an increasing number of graduates going into smaller entrepreneurial companies or start-ups, as does HEC Paris. Three years after graduation between 15 and 20 per cent of the class will be entrepreneurs, says Prof Ramanantsoa at HEC, and that does not include those graduates who go back into the family business.

And just as significantly, students heading for the top corporations are doing so outside traditional European stamping grounds. In 2012, for example, LBS reported that fewer than half its MBA students worked in the UK on graduation, and only about 65 per cent worked in Europe – compared with almost all its students a decade ago.

Areas that are growing as sources of employment include South America and Asia, and it is in this area that a handful of the top schools – LBS, Iese in Barcelona, HEC Paris, Insead in Fontainebleau, IMD in Lausanne, Rotterdam School of Management – have put aside their competitive instincts to run joint events for would-be recruiters from these regions. The scheme has worked so well that the schools are considering running joint admissions events as well.

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