In the past, only the Fontainebleu- based L'Institut Europeen d'Administration des Affairs (Insead), with its stringent language requirements and conscious international attitude from its foundation 30 years ago, could be said truly to fit this description. In recent years many others have been striving to obtain the status. The Cranfield School of Management and the London and Manchester Business Schools are already world-renowned names. Lesser-known institutions, some of them attached to the former polytechnics, have now set out down the international road.
The institutions are responding to the increased globalisation of business. This is partly related to the imminent arrival of the single European market, but also has a lot to do with the continued investment in Europe by US and Japanese companies and the development of the Far Eastern economies.
'We talk to managers all the time and they tell us that their job is becoming much more international,' says Cranfield's director, Professor Leo Murray. So, to a large extent, the impetus for this broadening of outlook is coming from the companies that the schools serve, but it is also derived from the schools' sense of where business is going.
Some might see the trend as a response to the business's overcrowding at a time of recession in many of its markets. The Association of MBAs reports that in the past five years the number of business schools offering MBAs has doubled to 82, while the number of graduates produced every year has increased by about the same proportion, to 5,000. 'Internationalisation is the flavour of the month,' says the organisation's director, Roger McCormick, pointing out that he is concerned about the effects of this massive growth on quality.
But the lesser-known should not be seen as a safety net for those applicants who fail to gain a place with more prestigious institutions. 'Applicants shouldn't discount those that don't have a high national or international profile,' he says. Schools with strong knowledge of their hinterland, say, can be attractive.
Few seem prepared to confine themselves to local roles. What they offer may vary from language training to high percentages of non-British students, but they are mostly concerned to stress their internationality. Students can be exposed to foreign ideas and methods without paying the high fees and living expenses that come with attendance at such centres as Harvard or Stanford in the US or even Insead.
The high level of English speaking among European managers means that it is little problem for them to study in Britain. But the same cannot generally be said of their British counterparts. In recognition of this, the recently renamed Brighton University has started a Euro MBA. A 16-month programme instead of the normal 12, it takes students with appropriate work experience and O-level or equivalent in one of the four main European languages. Participants are then, while following a conventional business studies syllabus, made fluent in their chosen language and sent to the appropriate country to be taught for a final term.
The management school at Lancaster University also offers intensive language tuition overseas combined with instruction in business studies with local students. It has built on existing links with schools in continental Europe, Asia and North America to offer a qualification that combines a conventional undergraduate MBA with working in two European countries. 'This is addressing a double demand - from companies and from students who see themselves as European managers,' says Gerald Watts, director of the university's MBA programme.
Few courses can be as global in make-up as that at Stirling University. Headed by Professor Errol Alexander, an American with experience of running his own companies as well as of academe, the current MBA course numbers a Thai prince and a former Garda officer among its 30 to 40 per cent overseas contingent. But it is particularly popular in the Far East, where, says Prof Alexander, it is considered to be on the same level as Harvard.
Describing the course as a 'smorgasbord MBA' that has a particular emphasis on negotiating skills, Prof Alexander sees the 12 months' duration as a particular advantage in attracting students who might otherwise head for the US.
Many schools are strengthening links with industry. For instance, at Insead, Dominique Heau, associate dean responsible for executive education, talks of the well-established relationship with the computer company Digital as 'a learning alliance' and predicts similar developments with other companies.
At Cranfield, where the proportion of overseas students has grown to about 40 per cent, Prof Murray comments that 'We've got to deliver what the market needs', while adding that he and his fellow academics must also give a lead.
'We make sure that the whole spirit is international,' he says.
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