It is true that many UK business schools have international links, a high proportion of students from overseas and even an international faculty. But there is no substitute for the experience of living and working abroad. Learning to adapt to the social and business cultures of another county is a key skill for those likely to work with overseas partners.
Until 1964 all business schools offering MBAs were in the US, and this is still a popular destination for those who work or plan to work in North America or for US-owned companies. Accredited business schools in Britain normally only accept MBA students who have at least two years management experience. Consequently students learn much from the accumulated experience of the class during team work, discussions and workshops.
Most full-time MBAs in Britain last one year. In contrast, US courses have traditionally accepted new graduates without any management experience. Although some now "prefer" prior experience, the courses still tend to be more theoretical in their teaching and most courses last for two years.
US schools are normally only within reach of those who can undertake a full-time MBA, usually over two years (but Harvard now offers a 16-month MBA). And the cost, including fees that can exceed $25,000 a year plus living expenses, is formidable. Fees in Europe are also high, but most courses are shorter and so incur fewer living costs and less time away from work.
Most people who study for an MBA now do so while doing a full-time job. Many are supported wholly or in part with sponsorship from their employer. People tend to assume that you need to attend a course close to home or your workplace, but this is not necessarily true.
Some part-time courses are designed with residential periods alternating with self-study. Others only require weekend attendance. Undertaking a part-time course in a neighbouring European country is perfectly feasible today.
All full-time MBAs in Britain take one year, except those from London (21 months) and Manchester (18 months). About half the accredited courses in Europe take more than a year - from 15 to 21 months. Two, Insead in Fontainebleau and Instituto de Empresa in Madrid, offer intensive 10-month MBAs.
It is often assumed that one needs a good working knowledge of the language of the country in which the school is located. But, because English is so widely used in international business, many overseas MBAs are taught in English.
Schools which teach MBAs in English include the European School of Management (EAP) and the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees (ENPC), both in Paris, the Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration, The Netherlands Business School at Nijenrode University and the NIMBAS Graduate School of Management which is also in the Netherlands.
Other schools offer bilingual teaching. The SDA Bocconi-Milano teaches in English and Italian, the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid and ESADE in Barcelona in English and Spanish, and the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris in English and French.
Some schools also send students to study part of the course in another country. For example, ENPC asks students to choose a geographical area - Europe, North America or Asia. In addition studying at ENPC, the student will also study at a university in the chosen area, and undertake a project there. Others - such as the Rotterdam School of Management which has an 18 month MBA - give students the opportunity to take part in the exchange programme with business schools all over the world
Choosing an overseas business school might be considered more risky that choosing one with a familiar reputation in the UK. You might also think it harder to finance an overseas course. Luckily the Association of MBAs can help with both.
The widely respected accreditation of the Association of MBAs, awarded only after rigorous inspection against demanding criteria, covers many business schools in continental Europe. This is a significant mark of quality assurance. Among many other things, it ensures that the curriculum is comprehensive and covers the core business skills; that the faculty and the student body is big enough and of the necessary calibre, and that all the necessary facilities are available.
The association publishes an annual guide to business schools which provides details of all accredited business schools, including those in continental Europe. It also provides comprehensive advice for would-be MBA students.
The association also acts as a clearing house for enquiries and deals with 1,500 letters and telephone calls a month from intending MBAs, or people thinking of doing an MBA.
MBAs are expensive, and unless you have sponsorship from an employer or substantial savings, can be difficult to fund.
However, in conjunction with the NatWest bank, the Association operates a business school loan scheme under which you can borrow up to two-thirds of your pre-course salary, plus tuition fees for each year of a full-time course.
To qualify, you must have been offered a place at an Association of MBAs- accredited business school in Europe or at one of the approved US business schools. For part time courses the loan can cover tuition fees, study equipment and course expenses.
No repayments are required while you're studying: interest is rolled up with the principal. After that the loan and interest must be repaid, usually within seven years.
There are also a limited number of scholarship for full-time students at US business schools. Some cover tuition fees only, but others cover living costs as well. Among the latter are the Fulbright Awards, Harkness Fellowships, Kennedy Scholarships and Frank Knox Fellowships.
`I aim to spend time immersed in another culture'
Milan Patel (above) studied full-time for a bilingual MBA at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris (known locally as Sciences Po)
"I was in stockbroking and made redundant. My career lost momentum and for the last couple of years I travelled abroad, learning Spanish and a bit of French and doing temporary work in between. I wanted to re-establish my career back in the financial sector, using the MBA as a way of re-entering the job market at a reasonable level.
"At Sciences Po my aim was to get a cross-cultural education, learn a language, and to spend some time totally immersed in another culture. The course lasted only a fairly intensive nine months, which I funded through a career development loan.
"I very much enjoyed it. It was nice making friends from different countries and living in Paris. My linguistic skills got me my present job with Barclays trying to get new clients in French-speaking West Africa."
John Blackett (right), an engineer, chose a full-time MBA at The Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.
"I'd never had a formal business education. I worked for a Canadian company, first in Canada, then the UK, and then Paris. I decided to leave my job, but my international exposure proved important to the MBAs selectors. I gained a Sainsbury Management Fellowship from the Royal Academy of Engineering.
"I felt Rotterdam's 18 months offered a good intermediate length between London's two years and Insead's 10 months. I went on an exchange at the Haas School at Berkeley near San Francisco, exposing me to Silicon Valley: I'm interested in applying business skills in hi-tech firms.
"I now work for hi-tech consultants in Oxford. It's worked out fantastically."
Insead - European Institute of Business Administration
Location: Fontainebleau, famed for its huge historic chateau, is a small town 40 miles south-east of Paris set in the scenic, 42,000 acre Forest of Fontainebleau. Building on its expertise and strong links with the Far East, a second full campus offering the same MBA will open next January in Singapore.
History: Founded by a group of French businessmen soon after Treaty of Rome was signed to create a truly European management school. The first MBA classes were held in the chateau in 1959. Moved to current buildings at edge of the forest in 1967.
Student body: More than 50 nationalities, with no dominant culture: 16% from North America, 12% UK, 11% France, 7% Germany, 6% central and eastern Europe, 6% Central and South America, 3% Middle East and Africa and balance from rest of Europe (1998/99). More than half the students have studied or worked abroad.
Faculty: Permanent faculty of 113 drawn from 24 countries.
Facilities: Good IT facilities, including network connections for laptops, internal and off-campus access to messaging system, fully networked lecture theatres, access to on-line and CD-rom based databases, and an IT link enabling teleconferencing and electronic exchange between campuses. No on-campus accommodation: most students rent houses or flats, often on a shared basis.
MBA Programme: Rated by many as the best in Europe, also very tough and intensive, but described as a "potent mix of intense study, intellectual debate and undergrad style boisterousness". There is only the full-time MBA, with fees just over pounds 16,000 (Fr159,000), accommodation and subsistence extra. The programme is taught in English, but you need a basic working knowledge of French for admission.
Students operate in small groups of five or six - chosen for diversity of nationalities, work experience etc - working together, typically for 16 hours a day, seven days a week for the full duration of the course (10-11 months depending on the calendar). There are a total of 22 courses divided into five eight-week sessions. In addition to the core general management programme, you choose electives from some 60 options.
n Address: Boulevard de Constance, 77305 Fontainebleau Cedex, France. Tele: 0033 1 60 72 4 2 73, Fax: 0033 1 60 74 55 30. Web site: www.insead.fr
Helsinki School of Economics and Business Administration
Location: Main campus is 10 minutes walk from the centre of Helsinki, Europe's most northern capital with a total population of 1m. There is a second campus at Mikkeli, a small town that's the administrative capital of Mikkeli province (and a ski centre) 150 miles north-east of Helsinki. Mikkeli has a population of 32,000.
History: Founded by the Finnish business community in 1904 and given university status in 1911. The MBA was launched in 1983, and the Mikkeli campus was opened in 1996.
Student body: Half Finnish, the rest international (1999).
Faculty: 67 full-time members in Helsinki and 30 in Mikkeli, drawn from leading business schools across the world.
Facilities: Largest business school in Finland with an excellent reputation. In 1997 it became the first (and so far only) business school in Scandinavia to be accredited by the Association of MBAs. It has good computer facilities and the largest business library in Finland. The Mikkeli campus, which offers a Digital Technology Management MBA, offers "state of the art" technology resources. No student residential facilities.
MBA Programmes: The international MBA at Helsinki, taught entirely in English, has recently been redesigned as an intensive one-year general management course, costing about pounds 7,300 (Fmk65,000).
You can also specialise in one of three areas: at Helsinki, either international business or finance. At Mikkeli, where the programme lasts 18 months, you undertake the same core programme, but specialise in digital technology management (DTM), focusing on the use of the latest multimedia and telecoms technologies: you do not need a technical background as you will be given the necessary knowledge.
Students are offered 45 elective courses in Helsinki and 16 for the DTM course. Many are not readily available elsewhere. These include Internet marketing, electronic commerce, strategic technology management, collaborative computing, and multimedia development for the Internet/intranet.
The programme in Helsinki will also be available part-time from the end of this year.
Address: Runeberginkatu 14-16, 00100 Helsinki, Finland.
Tel: 00358 9 4313 8696
Fax: 00358 9 4313 8613
Web site: www.hkkk.fi./mbafi
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