Levelling the playing field in Europe

From 2010, bachelors and masters degrees won't be rolled together, so business schools will have to fight for the best graduate talent
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's tempting to think that the ramifications of the Bologna agreement - the process by which most European countries will harmonise the structure of higher education by 2010 - don't need to be high on the list of priorities at the moment. Five years is, after all, a long way off, and there are far more urgent considerations for business schools, such as securing a healthy and high-quality intake on the next MBA programmes.

It's tempting to think that the ramifications of the Bologna agreement - the process by which most European countries will harmonise the structure of higher education by 2010 - don't need to be high on the list of priorities at the moment. Five years is, after all, a long way off, and there are far more urgent considerations for business schools, such as securing a healthy and high-quality intake on the next MBA programmes.

But, how many of us once had a similar "I'll worry about that when it happens" attitude to the arrival of the euro? And then, when our back was turned, three years shot by and the new currency was in full use across most of Western Europe.

So any schools eager to ensure they are well positioned to take advantage of the new framework, due to be established by 2010, would be well advised to act now.

For Julia Tyler, director of the MBA programme at London Business School, the priority for institutions specialising in management education should be establishing the clarity and prominence of their brand.

This view crystallised after Tyler's involvement in the recent Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) report on the possible effects of the Bologna process.

"One of the key things that resonated with me in the GMAC work was the importance, post Bologna, of brand."

Given that across Europe, so many more students will now be forced to break their studies on reaching the bachelor's degree landmark after three or four years, it is likely that many will look to undertake a Masters, often in a management discipline, at an institution with a strong brand in that area.

But Tyler does not advocate more razzmatazz and deployment of marketing tools to increase brand clarity. It is, she thinks, about institutions thinking more clearly so they fundamentally know what they stand for.

By 2010, the 40 signatory countries have undertaken to establish a higher education system that corresponds largely to the current UK model. Bachelor degrees will take three or four years; masters will take one or two years; and doctorates will follow. At the moment, most European systems roll the bachelors and masters into one course, lasting five years.

A key impact will be the likelihood that large numbers of students on the European mainland will decide to change subjects after getting their bachelor's, a large proportion choosing, either before or after some work experience, to do a masters with a solid management content. The GMAC study predicted that there would be 12,000 new management masters courses appearing on the market to satisfy this new demand.

While this is a welcome prospect for management schools generally, some see a potential threat to the MBA brand, particularly its reputation in Europe, as a qualification open to only students with substantial work experience in business, usually three years as a bare minimum.

A muddying of the waters would come about if significant numbers of European business schools chose to launch masters courses, open to all with a bachelors degree, or simply call them MBAs, thereby breaching that entry-requirement convention. There would be nothing by way of law or academic regulation, to stop them doing that and one can see the attraction, in marketing terms, of using such a well-known label.

This is already happening to a small extent in France, where MBAs that do not require substantial post-graduation business experience are appearing. There is ,for example, the MBA in international hospitality management at the ESSEC Business School in Paris.

Most French management schools, though, retain the traditional requirements for entry to MBA programmes, on the grounds that MBAs are for leaders more than learners. As Professor Christoph Bredillet, head of postgraduate programmes at Lille Graduate School of Management, says: "The MBA makes sense for people with professional experience. With less than three years' experience, we think that students are not mature enough to capture the essence of the qualification."

For this reason Lille, like most comparable institutions, retains the distinction between its MBA and its pre-experience masters in management. However, Bredillet is keeping a wary eye on the accreditation bodies and the marketplace.

"Those three magic letters, MBA, are attractive. If the pre-experience courses get market recognition as MBAs, we are all going to move that way."

At the Association of MBAs (AMBA), chief executive Jeanette Purcell is alive to these fears, but she argues it is still too early to know whether a dumbing down of the MBA brand will actually happen. She suspects that, even if it does, the core of reputable business schools will stick to their strict work experience entry requirements.

But, in an attempt to pre-empt such a development, AMBA is planning to widen its accreditation net, to include all management masters programmes, and not just the MBAs as is currently the case.

"We are trying to set the standards and help clarity by introducing accreditation for pre-experience masters, which we hope will provide a very helpful guide and benchmark to the qualification," says Purcell.

However, she is in no doubt that the demand for post-bachelor business education will soar, once the compulsory Bologna milestones are in place.

"The students are going to be looking at employability and how to convert their first discipline into getting a job. It's fascinating for the business education world and there is still a lot we don't know."

Ian Turner, director of graduate qualifications at Henley Management College, agrees that the number of students switching to business courses after getting their first degree will rise sharply, but questions whether this will lead to more applicants for MBA courses. The thinking here is, once they've got a "fix" of management theory in a pre-experience masters, they're less likely to want to come back for more after a few years at work.

"Increasing numbers of business and management schools believe the MBA will come under pressure because once a student has completed a Masters in management, they won't return to education to complete an MBA."

So, the sands are still moving, and Bologna is sure to remain on the radar of all business schools for the rest of the decade.

Comments