Optimism is the order of the day at Edhec Business School. The Grand École just outside Lille in northern France is the country's biggest provider of management education and is now trying to transform itself into an international education and research powerhouse. It has built a new campus, opened six research centres, and energetically recruited faculty and students from around the world. Edhec's rise is the latest sign of how French and European business education is reinventing itself for the 21st century.
Olivier Oger, dean of the school, does not restrain himself when describing the new 20-acre Croix-Roubaix campus. "It's a real breakthrough for business education in France, since it's the first Anglo-Saxon-style campus," he says. Other French business schools have extended and modernised their campuses, but Edhec's is unusually self-contained. The landscaped, wooded site includes a hotel for guests such as visiting professors, accommodation for 300 students, a bank, sports centre and a business incubator as well as the normal lecture theatres and IT facilities.
In fact, however, the new campus is the latest step in a history of adaptation. Edhec started life as the École de Hautes Etudes Commerciales du Nord in 1906. Lille was then a thriving industrial town whose economy was based on textiles and coal mining. But the region's fortunes began to decline from the Sixties and the school was forced to adapt.
Since Oger became dean in 1988 the school has parted company from Lille Catholic University, changed its name to the snappier Edhec and become a graduate school. In 1991, it acquired a campus in Nice. A satellite campus in Paris followed a few years later, and this year Edhec has opened campuses for executive education in Singapore and London. "The main objective is to reinforce our brand in those capital cities. We've chosen those cities because they're very important in the new world economy. We want to make our brand better known among businesses and students," says Oger.
Such ambition does not come cheap. Edhec has invested €50m (£43m) in the Lille development, in addition to €15m in each of Paris and London and €28m in Singapore. The annual budget is €65m, of which fees account for 60 per cent and companies financing research another 35 per cent. Only 5 per cent comes from the state.
But this considerable investment seems to be paying off. "Our ambition is to be an academic institution which has an influence on business," says Oger.
Edhec has more than 5,400 students at its Lille, Nice and Paris campuses. Of those, 3,000 are in Lille, and the new campus has room for 7,000. About a fifth of postgraduates across Edhec are international, and the aim is to double that proportion. However, the emphasis is at least as much on quality as quantity. The strategy is to establish an international reputation for research, courses and faculty which will in turn fuel Edhec's growth.
Giving research a high priority is normal among business schools, as is focusing on a particular discipline – in Edhec's case, risk and asset management. However, the school has taken an unusual approach. Its academics are expected to publish like their peers elsewhere. But not content with waiting for research to seep out into the wider world from academic journals, Edhec developed a policy of promoting research results to businesses.
Peter O'Kelly, marketing and communications manager for Edhec's development department and the Edhec-Risk Institute in Nice, has a team of 20 whose job is to publicise research. Companies contribute €8m of the €13m annual research budget – Deutsche Bank is the biggest single provider – so it was essential to persuade them to allow Edhec a free hand in disseminating the results.
O'Kelly's team uses conferences and an Edhec research day to push its wares. "Our intention was to become the leading research centre in Europe for risk and asset management. I think we've achieved that. The natural shift is to expand internationally, and that's what we are trying to do", says O'Kelly. Recently, the Monetary Authority of Singapore asked Edhec to develop a similar scheme for disseminating research to businesses in the city state. The research is intended to reinforce the teaching side.
Like other grandes écoles, Edhec's core product is its Masters. About a third of students take a Masters in Management, to which a financial economics track was added last year. Recently, the school came 14th in the Financial Times rankings of global Masters in management courses.
But Edhec also has plans to expand its MBA. The course, taught in Nice, costs €32,500, and has several unusual features. First, it is packed into 10 months, including two weeks abroad and a project. "It's really heavy. You're really under pressure," says Professor Emmanuel Metais, the MBA programme director.
Second, it challenges students as to what kind of people they are and what values they espouse. About 30 per cent of the programme is taken up by personal development. This has a couple of forms. One is direct mentoring of students, each of whom has a personal coach to challenge his or her attitudes towards themselves and the world. The other is a course devoting quite a lot of time to humanities, including philosophy, and which requires students to make assessments of each other on the teams in which they work.
"We allow them to think about themselves – what am I doing on Earth? It's very general, philosophical, even religious," says Metais.
This approach partly stems from the MBA's origins five years ago in a merger with the Theseus MBA provided by France Télécom to make better managers out of IT engineers. But Metais claims the novel course content has broad appeal and he hopes to double the present class size of 45, coming from 24 countries.