Europe widens choice for business students

Stephen Pritchard takes a sample of the MBA courses that are now available in EU countries
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The Independent Online
GRADUATES wishing to improve business skills have always been able to study abroad. The Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree originates in the United States, and universities such as Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are known world-wide for their programmes.

Outside the United States, the number of universities offering MBAs has grown rapidly. For many UK applicants, the choice is still between study at home pounds and a programme in North America. However, Europe also offers a rich choice of business education, and studying there has its own advantages: Europe is the world's largest single market.

Continental business education differs from the Anglo-Saxon model. Every European country has always followed its own route, such as the Diplom Kaufman in Germany or the training at the Grandes Ecoles in France. In the past 25 years, however, demand for internationally recognised post- graduate qualifications has grown, and universities have responded by offering MBA courses. Increasingly, these courses are being taught in English, making an MBA in Europe an option for far more UK students.

Some business schools are also building on their European locations to offer distinctive programmes. As well as the usual benefits of any study in a foreign country, such as language skills and a greater awareness of social and cultural differences, some MBAs give students the chance to acquire knowledge of European business practices. Often, there are classes dealing specifically with European Union institutions and policies.

With their proximity to the European Commission headquarters, it is no surprise that Belgian business schools have developed a particular expertise in this field. The Solvay Business School at the Universit Libre de Bruxelles is one of Europe's oldest business schools. It offers an MBA programme taught in English. From next year, this will merge with the more specialist Master of European Business. Options include courses in areas such as comparative accounting, European competition policy and marketing across borders.

"Our distinctive flavour is the courses on Europe," says Professor Andr Farber, president of the business school. "Being located in Brussels, we are close to many decision-making centres. We have close contacts with the European Union, and we are close to the headquarters of many European companies."

But Professor Farber agrees that the course content, though important, is only part of the draw of an MBA in Europe. A typical MBA intake of 50 students could have as many as 20 nationalities; and most staff at Solvay have either taught or studied abroad themselves.

"For UK students, it is an opportunity to gain some international experience," he says. "Living in Brussels means they will live in a different culture and environment. Although the Channel is not that big, there are some differences between London and Brussels."

Although Solvay has no language requirements for native English speakers, there are opportunities to practise French, or to follow language courses outside the MBA programme. One advantage of studying at a university, rather than a private business school, is the access it gives to the university's other facilities, such as libraries or language labs and experts from other faculties.

This view is shared by Professor Marc Lambrecht, the MBA programme director at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. Leuven, only half an hour from Brussels, has offered an MBA since 1968. The MBA includes specific European modules, such as the managerial aspects of European integration, and European contexts are used in core courses. The programme starts with a one-week introduction, Doing Business in Europe, which includes visits to the Commission and talks by representatives of companies based in Belgium. The course is fully integrated into the faculty system, and the high standards of the host institution apply to MBA students.

"pounds pounds We are part of the university, and we think that is the main point," says Professor Lambrecht. "It means students have to study; we do have exams." He believes the MBA programme benefits directly from the department's research interests and the "academic rigour" that the university fosters.

"The university-based tradition of academic excellence is what we want to focus on," Professor Lambrecht says.

A problem for graduates wishing to study abroad is the lack of clear guidance on which place to choose. There is a huge range of institutions offering MBA programmes, but not all are fully-fledged university departments.

"Understanding who are the institutions is a big issue," warns Professor Farber. "Manypounds schools offer MBAs and it is by no means clear who are the good ones and who are the lousy ones. We are part of the university and that gives us a standard of education that is the standard of the university as a whole."

An MBA at a respected state-sector university is likely to be a safe bet. It is important, however, to look at the credentials of the teaching staff and establish whether the modules are appropriate. Most European MBA programmes require a GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) score in addition to a good first degree and, preferably, business experience.

Some, including the Brussels MBA, invite students for an interview. This is expensive, but it gives a chance to see the school at first hand. It is worth talking to students, graduates and local people, to develop a "feel" for the programme's rating in its own country.

"You have to do your shopping," says Professor Farber.