For most of central and eastern Europe’s business schools, a key ambition is to complete the jump from ­being a local player to becoming a regional pole of attraction.

It is a challenge that all the region’s most prominent business schools are focused on, as many near the end of their second decade. With demographic decline an established trend in the region, recruiting foreign students is becoming a necessity – especially for private institutions.

Witold Bielecki, vice-rector of Kozminski University, a private ­institution in Warsaw, says: “The number of people of university age in Poland has been falling throughout the past 18-20 years, which has created problems for private institutions, since the number of places at state institutions has remained the same.”

He is particularly pleased that Kozminski has maintained recruitment numbers. “The number of places [at state institutions] that are free of charge more or less matches the number of students in the age group, but our enrolment is up 10 per cent compared to last year, which shows that our brand is well-known and powerful,” he says.

A strong brand is important for recruiting foreign students. “We’re looking for a strategy that will serve us during the years when neither the demographics nor the economic situation are favourable,” he says.

Currently, some 30 per cent of the university’s full-time students are foreign. “We are getting students from neighbouring countries like Ukraine, but also from China and Mexico, where there are surprising levels of interest in central and eastern Europe.”

When it comes to recruiting students from further afield, the prerequisite business school accreditations are a crucial tool. This year, Kozminski’s MBA secured accreditation from the US-based Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, alongside existing certificates from Equis, a European accrediting institution, and the UK-based Association of MBAs. This makes Kozminski the first school in the region to hold triple accreditation from the major vetting boards.

The recognition is helpful at a time when schools in the region are looking to raise their international profiles.

Sometimes the list of students’ countries of origin reveals surprising clusters. Budapest’s Corvinus University’s MBA has attracted candidates from Iran and even San Diego. “We had two Iranians in our first intake,” says Péter Móricz, managing director of Corvinus School of Management, and they told their friends. A decade later, we are on the list of five to 10 European business schools whose names Iranians know to look out for.”

As a state institution that offers publicly subsidised courses, Corvinus is in the unusual position of typically having only foreign students from outside the European Union on its MBA course. “For locals, it’s tempting to do a subsidised, non-MBA course in a business-related discipline,” says Móricz. The university’s MBA and EMBA are charged at market rates.

A handful of institutions in the region have succeeded in establishing international reputations, including IEDC in Bled, Slovenia, the key school for companies across the former Yugoslavia, and CEU Business School in Budapest, which was founded by the Hungarian-born investor George Soros. Other colleges offer qualifications under the supervision of foreign universities that have the necessary accreditations.

The Bucharest School of Management is also looking to expand its ­recruitment horizons. Adriana Dutescu, who runs the MBA programme offered in conjunction with the University of Ottawa’s Telfer school, concedes that the BSM’s offering remains a local one. “We have foreign students, including Russian, Chinese and Italian this year, but most of them are working here,” she says.

In the longer run, however, she is certain that the school will have to look further afield. “We are starting to look eastwards because the west is very crowded,” she says. “We see our region as including neighbouring countries like Bulgaria and Moldova, but also Ukraine or Kazakhstan, for example.”

Sona Ferenciková, who is vice-rector at VSM, a private management school in Slovakia which offers degrees from the City University of Seattle, stresses that the landscape for business education remains very different in a region where state educational provision is the norm. Competing for private education spending is difficult when faced with free offerings elsewhere, she says.

“Except in special cases like the Central European University’s business schools, where there is a benefactor, private institutions are mostly dependent on tuition fees. There is no culture of endowing institutions here yet,” she says. This can lead to greater responsiveness, however. “At public universities in Slovakia, deans and rectors are elected, so they are unlikely to take measures against those who voted for them … Boards at private institutions can be more objective and consider quality of teachers, not the politics.”

At the same time, she suggests, the legacy of the region’s old elite education systems may prove to be a hidden strength in the longer run. “Even if universities before 1989 were officially about Marxist learning, they were very selective, elite institutions. Some people who remain from then are very smart indeed, and it led to a culture of learning,” she says.

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