Three years ago Tory Peters was 30 years old and holding down a tough job on the assignment desk at CNN in Atlanta, Georgia. During her 10 years there the company had been owned by Ted Turner, Time Warner and finally AOL, each with its own management style.
"I decided that instead of being one of those bitter people who sit down and complain every day I might try to learn why people were making decisions I felt were fundamentally wrong," she says.
The answer was an MBA, but she soon saw a drawback. She didn't want to be with "a bunch of 22-year-olds straight out of university who had never worked". (Youngsters, perhaps, like Euan Blair, the Prime Minister's son, who is reported to be considering an MBA at Harvard after graduating from Bristol University.)
"I needed different experiences and a challenge," says Peters. "So I thought: abroad. And with my lack of languages, that meant the UK." Thus she became one of the many Americans who each year seek their business education in Europe.
At first sight, their decision looks perverse. After all, the MBA was invented in America. Top American schools such as Harvard, Wharton and Stanford still pack the hardest punch with employers. And the weak dollar doesn't buy what it used to when you're studying abroad.
Looked at more closely, however, a pattern emerges which makes sense particularly to older American or Canadian students prepared to work hard. For them an MBA at a good European school offers teaching of a similar quality to that in North America, a more international classroom experience, a chance to travel and - perhaps most important - a considerable financial saving: most European courses are one-year against the American two-year.
Paula Glason, of the Association of MBAs, points out that the US market, unlike the European, is dominated by the full-time MBA and demand is falling. So too is the average age of American students. And fewer overseas applicants are entering top US programmes as a result of visa restrictions.
"The US has had serious quality issues around the MBA over the past decade," she says. "During the boom years of the 1990s the market was undoubtedly overheated and it has suffered more than the UK as a result of the dotcom fallout."
When they come to Europe many Americans still prefer a hybrid course that nods towards the US model. Tory Peters applied to business schools in Cambridge, Bath, Warwick and Edinburgh. All accepted her but it was the internship built into Edinburgh management school's 15-month MBA in international business that won her over - plus the global clout of the Edinburgh name.
She spent six months in Edinburgh, three months studying in Paris at the grande école ENPC (living opposite the Louvre), a three-month internship with the BBC's strategy department in London, then three months writing her dissertation back in Scotland. In her class of 100 there were about 35 different countries represented, which she says was both stimulating and a challenge. "The work was incredibly difficult," she adds.
"But the course was cheaper than in America. I hadn't saved a cent beforehand but I borrowed about $45,000 (£25,000) at a low locked-in interest rate. I have a friend who went to Wharton. She borrowed $100,000 (£56,000). Now I pay about $415 (£230) back a month, but she's paying $950 (£530). That's a lot of money." Even with the weak dollar, an American seeking a top MBA course can save about 40 per cent by crossing the pond. Wharton's two-year MBA costs $39,835 (£22,000) - that's about $64,422 (£35,700) with living expenses - a year. The intensive 10-month course at Insead, near Fontainebleau in France - described as "drinking from a fire hydrant" - costs £30,000 (£47,000 with living expenses) all in.
Phil Bowers, Edinburgh's MBA director, points to the concentrated work during a shorter course. "OK, the Americans have better scholarship facilities. The very top schools are more famous. But our experience, for what it's worth, is that our students after just one year seem no worse prepared than their students in the second year." And in the second year of a two-year course, he says, students have often been offered jobs from their summer placements. "So the incentive to work really hard is just not there."
European schools are proud of their diversity. They say they offer an experience more suited to a global economy than the Americans. Harvard Business School may have students from 70 countries, but its MBA intake this year is 81 per cent American. At INSEAD, near Fontainebleau in France, a similar number of nationalities can be seen around the campus, but none represents more than 10 per cent of the intake.
But does a global intake really matter? John Roberts co-runs the global business centre at Stanford's Graduate Business School near San Francisco, rated among the world's top 10 schools. "To the extent that France and Germany are different countries it's true that Insead has a more diverse class," he says. "But if Europe thinks of itself as an entity then New York corresponds to France and California to Germany, and we have students from both."
"The top European business schools don't have American attendance that anything like reflects the size of the American economy in the world. And remember that many of our students are first or second-generation American Asians."
Edinburgh's Phil Bowers is not impressed. "We could argue that Yorkshire is a separate country. In fact there is a lot about the legal framework that is common across the USA, but varies in Europe. The business culture of Germany is radically different from the UK, for example."
Jacqueline van Marle, of the Nyenrode business school in the Netherlands, adds: "What you don't get in the US are the cultural events organised on campus by foreign students - Chinese New Year, for example. And of course, American students over here bring their culture too, with Thanksgiving."
Tory Peters found her current job at a media consultancy in Glasgow through contacts made at her BBC internship. "I'm running a 12-month programme teaching business skills to TV people, so I'm really using the skills I learnt on the MBA and also the contacts I made on it," she says.
The course also provided her with a boyfriend - and she is not alone. Many American students remain in Europe, often because relationships have blossomed. Ah, the romance of statistics and strategy...
'I wanted a broadening experience'
Sunny Neely, 31, from Atlanta, Georgia, is as student on the two year full-time course at IESE business school in Barcelona
Two years ago I was working in Washington DC for the consultants BearingPoint, doing IT and project management consulting. I knew I wanted to go for an MBA, and rather than going for two more years of the classic American university I wanted to have a broadening personal experience. I think that having a European MBA is going to be a big career differentiator for me in the long run.
I studied English Literature at university and knew the finance and accountancy would be hard, so I needed quite an academic approach. I was attracted to London Business School and Rotterdam School of Management, but IESE seemed like the best match. The people there are highly motivated but there's also a real balance. They have a lot of different interests outside of a straight-ahead career focus.
I made the decision to come here when the euro was on a par with the dollar and at that point it seemed like a real bargain. Living expenses in Barcelona aren't bad, especially compared to Washington, but in fact the entire experience has been very expensive.
For me there'll be a much higher amount of debt, and the difficulty of re-entering the US job market. But I have an entrepreneurial approach to job-hunting. I won't have as much trouble as other younger American people doing the same thing.
'I wanted a focus on international business'
Roger Duce, 34, from Vancouver, has just finished his MBA at Cranfield and is job-hunting
I guess the biggest reason that I was not interested in an MBA from a US or Canadian school was that they did not focus on international business enough. If you go to school in the USA, you are bound to learn about business from a domestic viewpoint.
The only way to consider international issues is to take some electives in international business. They might last three months, and you don't learn anything in that time. This means that it is only half as effective as it could be.
I had worked in America and in South Africa and I wanted to meet other students with the same level of experience. The cost wasn't hugely important, just so long as the programme was recognised enough that I could get some funding. For the Cranfield course I basically wound up paying about £100,000, including expenses and loss of salary.
At Cranfield there were three Americans and myself and another Canadian, all there for similar reasons. It was hard work and we didn't get a chance to see much of the UK while we were studying. The way things are taught here is quite domestically oriented, but it was still much better than in the school I majored at in America.
The last two terms at Cranfield are basically 100 per cent elective. You can choose a marketing track, or finance or personal development. Has it been worth it? I'm sure hoping so!
A tale of two continents
THE AMERICAN MBA
The MBA started in America and the typical American course lasts two years, though some schools, notably Babson College, also offer one-year courses. They teach the basics of finance, accountancy, strategy and marketing in modules and by various means, including the case-study method pioneered by Harvard. Then comes a three-month summer internship followed by a year in which students can specialise, perhaps in a language.
American students often take their course in their mid-20s. Classes and course content are predominantly American (applications from international students have been falling fast). Degrees from the top schools are recognised and rewarded the world over by employers, who often recruit graduates of their old schools. Alumni networks are well established and alumni donations are an important source of income for the schools.
Professor Ian Turner, director of graduate business studies at Henley Management College, says the US market is polarised into the executive MBAs done by experienced managers in their late 30s, and the full-time intensive MBAs done by post-graduate students in their mid-20s. "The full-time MBA students in the US come out well-schooled in analysis and such like, but there is no guarantee they will have the skills to manage people."
THE EUROPEAN MBA
The average British full-time MBA is typical of those in the rest of Europe, lasting one year only - though there are exceptions such as London Business School's two-year MBA or that at IESE in Barcelona. In concentrated courses students learn the basics, though not in such depth as in America. Students come from all over the world, and are likely to be aged 27 or over, with at least four years management experience. The top-rated European courses carry weight with global employers but lesser-known names might not. Alumni support is less established in Europe than in America.
Malcolm Kirkup, full-time MBA director at Lancaster University Management School, says: "The American MBA, with its focus on quantitative and analytical approaches to business issues, contrasts sharply with the less insular, more diverse, international outlook and emphasis on soft skills found on European programmes."
Henry Mintzberg, professor of management studies at McGill University, Canada, is a well-known critic of American MBAs, claiming that they don't train people to manage. "One of the best kept secrets in the world is that the real innovation in MBA programmes is happening in England," he says.