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During a recent trip to New York I was taken aback when a business school boss used a word I thought I would never hear a US dean utter: “inclusion”. His school, he said, was looking at ways to ensure those from poorer or disadvantaged backgrounds could experience the sort of education usually reserved for the affluent.

Of course, “inclusion” is a word and a concept that has become second nature to European universities and business schools – in theory though not always in practice. For years prestigious universities in Europe, such as Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, have been striving to distinguish between the social and intellectual elite.

In France, the Grandes Ecoles have spent the past decade trying to prove they welcome and support those from Paris’s banlieues as well as those from Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Some have succeeded, others have not.

But the top US schools have always prided themselves on being elite and teaching the elite. Their funding model– both the higher fees they charge and the endowments they attract from graduates – has done little to dispel this idea.

Until now, that is. So, are US business schools starting to follow the European model of social inclusion? If so, why might that be?

The second question is easier to answer than the first. The banking crisis and subsequent recession in the US have encouraged a more nuanced attitude to money and wealth. Perhaps as a result of the recession and unemployment, young people are also looking for a different social, educational and employment contract. The pursuit of wealth and power does not necessarily drive teenagers and twentysomethings’ choice of university in the way it did for many of their parents.

If US universities really are following their European peers it will not be the first time. The recent adoption of the masters in management degree format in top US schools such as Kellogg, Duke and Michigan Ross is one example. The European-style one-year MBA is also proving increasingly popular in North America – SMU Cox is the latest business school to adopt this accelerated format. When it comes to teaching styles and curriculums, action learning and MBA consulting projects, popular in Europe for 50 years, have also been adopted by the US in the past decade.

Programme structure is one thing, but the broad ethos of education is another matter.

editor's letter illustration for Business Education European Business Schools ranking 2014

Of course, the big advantage for US business schools is that they have the money to fund scholarships for disadvantaged students. Traditionally scholarships at North American business schools have been used to lure the brightest students, often those with the highest GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) scores, regardless of their financial backgrounds.

Attracting additional funds for scholarships from alumni is a relatively easy task for US business schools that have huge fundraising departments. But how do European business schools fund their “inclusive” good intentions at a time when their own finances are under growing pressure?

Take the French Grandes Ecoles, which are facing swingeing cuts as their parent chambers of commerce see their revenues shrink. Compounding the schools’ problems, the apprenticeship tax, which has always been a second income stream, is also being slashed. Some French schools face losing 25-35 per cent of their revenues in the next few years. Whatever these institutions’ ambitions for inclusivity, their biggest challenge will be to retain their existing staff and fund existing salaries.

The situation is not much better in most of continental Europe, where state-funded universities dominate the business education sector. All have to try and cut costs while diversifying their sources of revenue.

In the UK a sharp hike in fees, especially at undergraduate level, has transferred the cost of education from the state to the individual, although fees for undergraduate degrees are still less than half those charged at comparable universities in the US. At the University of Pennsylvania, one of the universities that has an undergraduate business programme, undergraduate fees are more than $47,000, for example.

Perhaps the most depressing thing for European business schools is that just as their US peers show signs of moving towards the more liberal and inclusive education policies favoured in Europe, European schools are being forced to adopt US models of funding.

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