Most courses like to be considered 'international'. Check their credentials, says Diana Hinds

As it becomes increasingly important in the business world to gain experience with a global dimension, many people considering MBAs are looking harder at the international credentials of different institutions. As Dr Jikyeong Kang, director of the full-time MBA programme at Manchester Business School, says: "People need to have a keen awareness of how the world operates, and how business can and should be communicated beyond the comfort zone of their own country."

But how are prospective students to assess the relative advantages of different institutions, especially now that most full-time MBA courses like to call themselves "international" programmes? Paula Glayson, head of communications at the Association of MBAs says three key factors make an MBA truly international.

Firstly, the curriculum needs to be internationalised, offering case studies which focus on businesses all over the world.

Secondly, the faculty members teaching the MBA should themselves be from diverse, international backgrounds. "This is the most important factor," Glayson says, "But also the factor that many schools struggle with."

Thirdly, the student body should comprise many different nationalities. Most full-time programmes do have an international mix, says Glayson, but some may have a preponderance of students from one country which is less useful. "From the students' point of view, their experience will be better if they have contact with students from a variety of other countries," she says.

The next question is whether a student's international experience will be enhanced by going abroad to study. Pedro Videla, from Chile, is professor of economics and a member of the Executive MBA committee at IESE in Barcelona, and agrees that it is crucial for a good business school to have an international faculty.

"In the last year we have been hiring more international faculty members than in the past. We still have a way to go, but we are also building the international aspect by encouraging our professors to go and teach in our sister schools around the world, so that they get to know the research there. We think it"s important to get this global perspective."

But the student body at IESE is already thoroughly international, boasting students from 55 different countries, and work experience placements in 80 countries.

"It can be challenging at first for students to take account of other people's perspectives," says Videla. "Students sometimes think, 'is this really what I need?' But after a while, they realise that there is no such thing as a company in a country which doesn't have ties with the rest of the world. If you want to be a manager at a senior level, you have to get this experience."

Barcelona as a city has obvious charms for students from overseas, in terms of its culture, its climate and the natural beauty of the surrounding area. But students contemplating an MBA at IESE are well-advised to learn some Spanish before they go, as the course has a compulsory Spanish component. Instituto de Empresa in Madrid runs a full-time bilingual MBA programme over 15 months, while at ESADE Business School in Barcelona, the first half of the 18-month course is taught in both English and Spanish, and the second half exclusively in Spanish.

INSEAD, based at Fontainebleau near Paris, ranks among the world's most international business schools with 63 nationalities represented on its student body, but here students are are expected to speak three languages before graduating.

UK students with less flair for languages but an appetite for living abroad may do better in the Netherlands, for instance at the Netherlands Business School at Nyenrode, or Rotterdam School of Management (RSM). At Rotterdam, the MBA course is taught entirely in English despite the fact that 96 per cent of full-time MBA students are international and come from at least 50 countries, and most of them (not including the four to five per cent of UK students) speak at least three languages.

"This is a very small country, but it is very outward-looking, and very friendly to all international students," says Connie Tai, director of marketing and communications at RSM. Like many schools, RSM has dedicated offices to take care of students' housing needs, visas and residency permits, thus minimising some of the more awkward aspects of studying abroad. And at the end of the course, many international companies, as well as local ones, are keen to recruit Rotterdam's graduates.

"What we try to cultivate here is the idea that your opinions are not everyone's opinions," says Tai. "To succeed in international business, it is important to strike a balance between what is globally relevant and what is nationally or locally sensitive. It is very important for students to have a very broad and open mind-set."

Dr Pauline Weight, director of the full-time MBA programme at Cranfield School of Management, believes that studying abroad brings certain advantages in terms of broadening a student's experience. "But the most important thing is to be in an international peer group. We have 35 different nationalities on our programme here, and a UK student who has this kind of peer group will be gaining a very international experience, even while staying in the UK."

Many UK schools run exchange programmes with business schools around the world, as a way of increasing their internationalism. At Cranfield, Weight says the 10-week exchange option - to Shanghai, Australasia or South Africa - is not very popular with students. But at Manchester Business School, which runs a longer MBA course of 18 months, all students spend four weeks in Prague, Madrid and Paris, and about half choose to take part in a three-month International Exchange Programme.

At the end of the course, all Manchester students undertake an "international business project", working in teams of mixed nationalities on a consultancy project involving real clients and real budgets, and which is international in nature. "The extra six months of our programme allows us to make it much more international," says Dr Jikyeong Kang.

'THE MIX OF NATIONALITIES IS FANTASTIC'

Estela Ye Ping, from China, worked for four years in a Shanghai firm trading with Spain, before being awarded the Asian scholarship for an MBA at the Instituto de Empresa in Madrid

As my academic background was in linguistics and Spanish, I decided I needed an MBA to give me more experience in economics. I also wanted the experience of studying in a foreign country.

I knew I wanted to study in Spain, because I had already travelled there on business and had been in charge of several Spanish clients. The company I worked for gave me a lot of support over the MBA, and told me I could return after I graduated. So the choice for me was between IESE in Barcelona and Instituto de Empresa in Madrid.

I decided against IESE, because I had been to Barcelona before and knew that foreigners could have problems with the Catalan dialect, for instance in restaurants.

Madrid is a fantastic city - although the MBA is so much work, I haven't had a lot of time to enjoy Madrid life. But living with students from about 50 nationalities has been really fantastic. Every three months, we had to work with a different team - which was an effort, but also good. I was the only Chinese student, but the other students wanted to find out about China, so I didn't feel isolated.

Managing to live abroad on your own, at the same time as doing an MBA, means there is even more pressure on you. But it's like being in a laboratory: in the future we will be working with colleagues and clients from all over the world, so doing my MBA in Spain is good practice for me.

'YOU LEARN FROM THE OTHER STUDENTS'

Paul Louzado, from the UK, was living in Barcelona and working in sales when he opted for an international MBA at the Rotterdam School of Management. He now works as a strategy consultant for a Dutch bank

I wanted a European school with an international profile. I was really looking more at the make-up of the student body, than at the faculty - because you are going to learn just as much from the other students as you are from the lecturers.

Having a Dutch girlfriend was a good reason for me to move to the Netherlands, and the Rotterdam School of Management was strongly international: out of 150 students, there were 50 different nationalities, and 98 per cent were non-Dutch. In my year, the largest groups were Canadians and Greeks.

The MBA was taught completely in English, but I was amazed at the number of students who had English as a second, third or fourth language.

I personally didn't like Rotterdam very much as city, but I was living in Amsterdam and commuting. What made the experience for me was the diversity of the students. We had presentations about different cities and cultures, and lots of food events, where we tried different cuisines.

In the first semester, some nationalities - particularly Oriental and Asian - seemed loathe to make critical comments in front of lecturers. But as the course went on, the people who had been loud to begin with quietened down, and those who had been quiet spoke up.

The course helped people from different backgrounds to understand each other and interact better in a group environment.

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