To make a real mark in business, the more international your MBA the better, says Steve McCormack

Business is increasingly a global phenomenon. The internet and e-mail have all but done away with time zones; international travel has become easier and quicker, and barriers to trade across national frontiers continue to fall like dominoes.

In parallel, the days when MBA graduates completed their courses with expertise and experience in commerce limited to one geographical area are long gone.

The MBA world has had to globalise just as fast as the business world it prepares its students to inhabit. A sector of business education that, until not that long ago, had an almost exclusively North American flavour, is developing tentacles, virtual and real, stretching right around the world.

A look at the nationalities of current MBA students makes the point. Eighty per cent of last year's cohort at Oxford University's Saïd Business School came from outside the UK, representing 41 different countries, something viewed at Saïd as nothing but positive. The global nature is further underlined by the fact that around 40 per cent of Said's foreign alumni, on finishing their MBA, move away from the UK, to a third country, to take up employment.

"Demand for the Oxford MBA is increasingly coming from the growing economies of India, central and eastern Europe and China," explains Stephan Chambers, Head of MBA programmes. "These countries produce outstandingly well-trained students, with experiences that other students value."

And as the student cohort has changed, so the shape and content of Saïd's programme has internationalised as well. Among recent additions is a lectureship in Chinese Business Studies, a new institute identifying science and technology issues likely to play critical roles in shaping the world, and a foundation whose mission is to benefit communities around the world by investing in social entrepreneurs.

The almost ever-present element, wherever you look, is the China factor, hardly a surprise, given the rampant economic progress of the country with more than two- fifths of the world's population. Students from China are now appearing in numbers within MBA cohorts on most campuses, and business schools are increasingly forging links with organisations in China.

The developments at Bristol Business School (BBS), part of the University of the West of England illustrates the trend.

Some 50 Chinese postgraduates now attend either the school or the university every year. The school has, together with Tsinghua University in China, developed a two-year business and management programme for Chinese students. The first year is spent in China and the second in Bristol, where the students take one of six business masters degrees, including the MBA. BBS is also setting up an office in Guang-zhou, southern China's main manufacturing city, and plans to expand its links with at least three other Chinese universities.

And Bristol-based company Mail Marketing International, which has established strong links with China, is offering an MBA scholarship, covering tuition and accommodation fees, for Chinese student, Xinhao Li, from Guangzhou.

Li, who has acted as an interpreter for delegations from the South-west visiting the city, says: "I have a great interest in business and wanted to do an MBA to equip me with management learning and business skills to use in my homeland, at a time when there are a lot of industry reforms in China after years of state ownership."

At the Association of MBAs (AMBA), where the accreditation process monitors business schools' agility at keeping pace with changes in the business world, there's a real appreciation of the value to an MBA course of having some Chinese participation.

"Having four or five Chinese students in a group presents a real challenge to the rest," says AMBA'S Jeanette Purcell. "Working with people who have language difficulties, from a different culture and who go about business in a different way can be tough, but in today's world these are valuable lessons to learn."

However, enthusiasm from, and for, China, is a double-edged sword. AMBA are just as vigilant in checking that MBA courses do not become over-loaded with Chinese students or faculty, as that, too, would produce a distorted representation of the real business world.

A further sign of the widening influence of advanced business education in general, and the MBA in particular, is the expansion of MBA programmes into areas with, until now, fairly sparse provision in this higher education sector.

In Berlin, the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) has just launched a new MBA, backed by the 25 top German companies who founded ESMT. It's a clear sign that corporate Germany wants to up its game in management education.

"The closeness of the MBA programme to the sponsoring companies is something very special," explains ESMT's Professor Derek Abell. "That is part of the excitement."

The first cohort of around 40 students will start in January next year - a start time deliberately more in tune with the business year than the academic one - and many of them will benefit from the €1.5m Euro scholarship fund provided by the founding companies.

The course will be taught in English and feature several international elements, among them a module on "enlarging business in an enlarging Europe", and field trips to look at business practice outside Germany, certain to include Eastern Europe.

The third element sure to take the MBA students across borders, physically and intellectually, is the practical project, undertaken, again with the help of ESMT's parent companies, towards the end of the 48-week course. "Given that all the companies operate internationally, I don't expect the projects to be local in any way," says Abell.

The aim of ESMT, over the next five years, is to develop a truly international cohort on the MBA, with 20 per cent coming from each of five global regions: Germany; Western Europe; Eastern, Central Europe and Russia; the Americas; and Asia. While this sort of mix is already common at most UK businesses schools, all are enhancing the international side of their programmes.

At Imperial's Tanaka Business school, for example, teams of MBA students regularly enter international business plan competitions, where they pit their wits against teams from a wide spread of schools. Tanaka has an admirable success rate here, and ideas born in these contexts have frequently developed into real businesses, supported by real investment.

Every cohort of students from Ashridge takes part in an international study week at a variety of venues in both hemispheres. Daniel Ziguilinsky, from Chile, who's just graduated from the one-year MBA, went on a week at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. The week consisted of lectures on the South African economy and a period of work with a local company. Ziguilinsky also valued the international spread of his fellow students - seven nationalities among just 15 - and teachers.: "The faculty were not only subject-matter specialists, but also experts in, and in some cases natives of, some of the countries that are the most significant players in today's global arena."

And, in almost every business larger than a corner shop, it is no exaggeration to say that these days the operating landscape is exactly that: the global arena.

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