If you want a business programme reflecting an international patchwork of backgrounds, head to the Continent

English-speaking students have traditionally spurned the idea of studying for an MBA in continental Europe, but this is rapidly changing as canny students realise there are huge advantages to pursuing their education in countries such as France, Spain or Switzerland. American students now outnumber all other nationalities at Insead, and other schools are reporting similar rises.

"Last year, we had a huge increase in applications from the UK and we are also seeing a lot of increase from the US," says Núria Guilera, marketing director for the MBA programme at Esade, in Barcelona. "Studying abroad is a way people can differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace. Most international companies expect a level of international experience and students can get that here. Only 13 per cent of our students are Spanish, the rest come from five different continents."

Such diversity is common to European business schools. "We have 55 nationalities on our current programme. Ninety per cent of our participants are trilingual," says Valérie Gauthier, associate dean of the HEC MBA programme, in Paris. "This diversity is greater than any other top MBA in the West, but we also have other kinds of diversity. We have people from all backgrounds and sectors. We have a diversity of culture, of academic approach and of professional point of view."

European MBAs tend to be shorter, and more cost-effective than US ones, and can offer their students close links to Asia and the Middle East – a real attraction for students who know they will be job-seeking in a difficult market.

Fees are broadly in line with equivalent schools in the UK, or lower, and a growing number of European schools are now considered world class. Spain has three business schools in the top 20 of this year's Financial Times global rankings: IE comes sixth, IESE 11th and Esade 19th. Also in the top 20 are two French schools, Insead, at fifth and HEC, at 18th, while Switzerland's IMD comes in 15th.

"In the past, maybe there was validity to saying that if you were trying to get a job in the US, managers didn't know much about European schools, but that isn't the case any more," says Joseph LiPuma, director of the international MBA programme at EM-Lyon. "People used to think European schools were out of the mainstream, but they have made great advances in recent years. And anyway, no one knows where the mainstream is going to be any more. People are not going to spend their whole career in one country."

Neither is there a need to speak the language of the host country, since most schools teach in English. But language classes are usually included at least at the beginning of MBA programmes, giving students an extra skill. "We find that students who take the classes tend to carry on, and all of them can understand a conference in French when they leave," says Gauthier. "For employers, this shows you have a real open-mindedness and an adaptive capacity."

European schools often have small classes and superb facilities and all feel they can offer their students something different. Esade is very focused on teamwork and collaborative working. For HEC, it's a strong commitment to what Gaulthier terms the "humanistic" approach of looking at long-term, holistic values over short-term returns on investment. Further east, ESMT business school in Berlin offers students a nose-up view of a different way of doing business. "Germany has more of a stakeholder approach than a shareholder approach, so it has not suffered as much from the financial crisis," says Nick Barniville, director of MBA programmes. "People come here to understand the mentality of companies in Germany."

Then there is the lifestyle. "An MBA isn't just a year of intensive study, it's also a year spent living in a new city," points out Valérie Claude-Gaudillat, director of MBAs at Audencia Nantes School of Management. "Quality of life in Nantes is a major factor in [students] getting the most from their MBA."

It's a great school

"Why am I doing my MBA here?" asks Hugo Williamson, 29, a British MBA student at Esade, in Barcelona. "I only have to look out of the window to answer that. It's a gorgeous sunny day and I've been in T-shirt and shorts for the last couple of days. More to the point, it's a great school.

I'd been out of the UK for four and a half years, and although I wanted to come back to Europe I didn't, quite honestly, want to come back to the UK. I was working in Hong Kong and had lots of meetings with someone from Esade on her swings through Asia and the whole recruitment process seemed much less formal than in other places.

I also liked the emphasis on teamwork. I really wasn't in the mood for a highly aggressive 18 months, and the culture is undoubtedly more collegiate than in other places. I'm halfway through and it's been a great experience. I was a consultant for eight years before, working in South Africa and Asia, and now I'm looking for jobs all over the place."