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With the political mood in the US and UK growing more introspective, French business schools are sensing an opportunity to attract more international students to their campuses at home and abroad.

In recent years the focus of French business schools has been on consolidation and mergers, such as those that created both Neoma and Kedge in 2013. Some have been more successful than others and the trend may be coming to an end. “I don’t think we will see many more mergers,” says Jean-Michel Blanquer, dean of Essec. “The mergers that made sense have been done.”

This return to greater stability at home is one factor encouraging some French schools to look outward. There is also pressure from government. French higher education lags behind the world’s main providers of general transnational education — the US, UK and Australia — and a recent report by government-affiliated think-tank France Stratégie, highlighted an “urgent” need for a new approach.

While French business schools are among the more active higher education institutions overseas, teaching some 3,000 students outside France, there is awareness that there is potential for growth. In order for a French school to gain accreditation from the ministry of national education for its academic awards, it must now demonstrate a clearly defined strategy for international expansion.

But being international is not enough, says Bernard Belletante, director-general of EMLyon. “We’ve been sending students abroad for many years and internationalisation is not a problem thanks to the EU,” he says. “Now we have to move to globalisation.”

Work on Essec’s new campus in Rabat, Morocco
Work on Essec’s new campus in Rabat, Morocco

Financial pressures are also an important driver pushing French schools to seek new markets. There are several categories of business school in France: those part of a public university (the Institut d’Administration des Entreprises network); privately-run business schools that operate like companies with shareholders; some that operate as non-profits under the status of etablissement d’enseignement supérieur privé d’intérêt général (private higher education institutions with a public interest); and the écoles consulaires, a final group that includes big schools such as HEC and ESCP Europe, which are overseen, in part, by the French Chambers of Commerce.

“Although each category has its specific challenges, all are faced with the significant decrease of public funding,” explains Frank Bournois, dean of ESCP Europe, referring to cuts in funding from the French Chambers of Commerce and the local apprenticeship tax. Also, while France offers attractive tax incentives to philanthropists, French business school foundations are still learning the art of attracting wealthy donors.

French schools therefore spy new revenue opportunities abroad. “The domestic market is already mature, so growth lies in the recruitment of international students,” says Jean-Guy Bernard, the dean of EM Normandie.

For some, that recruitment strategy means opening campuses in different continents. The latest to open, at the end of September, is Shenzhen Audencia Business School (SABS), a joint venture between Audencia business school, based in Nantes, and Shenzhen University in southern China’s Guangdong province.

Essec in Mauritius
Essec in Mauritius

Launching three programmes in 2017 — an MBA, a DBA and a masters — SABS aims to attract 500 students in three years. Audencia also plans to launch a campus in Latin America within three years, while an agreement with the Ivory Coast’s Institut National Polytechnique Félix Houphouët-Boigny was announced earlier this year.

In September, Paris-based Essec began teaching in Rabat, Morocco, where its new Africa-Atlantic campus opens next year, with the aim of attracting students from across west Africa, complementing its east Africa-Indian Ocean campus in Mauritius. “Our goal is to be multi-polar, present in the business hubs of each continent,” says Prof Blanquer, its dean.

EMLyon, which already serves Africa with a campus in Casablanca and is stepping up its partnership with East China Normal University to create a joint school in Shanghai named Asia-Europe Business School, is now targeting South America, according to its dean.

Shenzhen Audencia Business School in southern China
Shenzhen Audencia Business School in southern China

“I’m convinced that in 10 years the international accreditation bodies will be demanding evidence of the internationalisation of a school’s graduates, for example, 50 per cent of graduates who are not French,” predicts EMLyon’s Belletante. “That’s impossible if you are not going abroad.”

French schools must beware of a copy-and-paste approach, says François Bonvalet, dean of Toulouse Business School, which now has international campuses in London, Barcelona and Casablanca. “We need to pull from the French savoir-faire,” says Prof Bonvalet, but applied work and teaching practices must be adapted to local norms. He also cautions that the cost of establishing campuses abroad can be detrimental to the home campus.

“It’s expensive to operate abroad especially in areas where tuition fees cannot be raised,” he explains. “As we want to have harmonisation within our programmes taught across multiple campuses, the expenses of one campus limits what we are able to do in France. So our business model must be well defined.”

Other schools, such as HEC Paris, are stopping short of investing in new campuses abroad, choosing instead to partner with business schools around the world to offer joint and double degrees and student and faculty exchanges. Schools that perform well in global rankings can leverage the power of their international brand to attract more international students to their programmes in France, often using overseas offices and fairs.

Whatever their strategy, globalisation is causing many schools to reflect on their French identity, consider how best to market the strengths that have cachet abroad and discard French specifics that hold them back.

Plans for EMLyon’s new campus in Casablanca
Plans for EMLyon’s new campus in Casablanca

For example, the traditional French system of classes préparatoires (preparatory classes), which organises the selection and preparation of students for competitive exams into the leading business schools, is not accessible to international students. All classes are in French, with a strong emphasis on maths and French humanities or liberal arts.

Jean-Michel Blanquer, Dean of Essec Business School
Outward looking: Jean-Michel Blanquer wants Essec to have a campus at every business hub of each continent © Anna Gordon

But a growing number of students are now entering bachelor degree programmes that have been introduced alongside the classes préparatoires. “It’s drastically changing the game,” says ESCP’s Prof Bournois. “This new track is becoming more attractive to non-French students.”

According to Eloic Peyrache, associate dean of HEC, many French business schools tend to be more multi-disciplinary than their US or British counterparts and offer more academic content and greater contact time with faculty.

Prof Peyrache thinks French schools also excel in the personal development of students. “We work on three dimensions at HEC. Know yourself, know the market and match yourself with the market,” he says. “French business schools spend more on the know yourself. We tend to have slightly longer programmes, which leaves more time for broadening horizons and opportunities to learn. We give students longer to ask questions and find answers.”

Hopes for favourable fallout from Brexit

ESCP Europe graduate Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator in its Brexit talks with Britain, will be cheered on by some French business schools who hope he delivers a deal that will make them more attractive to UK and international students.

European Union Commissioner for Internal Market and Services Michel Barnier addresses a news conference at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels April 9, 2014.  REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/Files
Opportunities: Michel Barnier is due to negotiate Brexit on behalf of the EU © Reuters

About 436,000 students in all subjects, including 125,000 from EU nations, go to the UK for higher education each year. Brexit and the British government’s tough stance on student visas may offer an opportunity to present French schools as an alternative.

Some French schools already have offices or campuses in the UK, for example Essec, Grenoble and Toulouse have a presence in London, while EM Normandie has opened a campus in Oxford. Others, such as EMLyon, believe their Paris campuses are close enough to tempt students from the UK and elsewhere.

Most of the larger schools offer classes in English. Fees, even at some of the top French schools, compare favourably with those charged by UK competitors.

Much may depend on how British schools respond, says Jean-François Fiorina, vice-dean of the Grenoble Ecole de Management. “Brexit could be an opportunity for us. But paradoxically, it could also be a threat,” says Fiorina. “Maybe, to avoid consequences of Brexit, UK universities and business schools will open campuses in France.”

However, Jean-Michel Blanquer, dean of Essec, sees opportunities for collaboration. “We know that some UK universities and business schools are thinking about coming to the continent,” he says. “Perhaps it’s time to create links and partnerships between French and UK business schools and show that there is no Brexit in our hearts.”

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