Fancy studying in a different country? Then take an MBA run by a partnership of international schools, says Amy McLellan

"I jumped at the opportunity," says Bill Sheridan, a graduate of the UCD Michael Smurfit School of Business in Dublin, of his chance to spend one-third of his MBA at another business school on the other side of the world. Sheridan, a senior executive at the food manufacturer Kerry Group, says the decision to spend three months at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai didn't require much thought.

"I'd worked internationally but never in Asia and I saw this as an opportunity to spend some time there without making a long-term career commitment," he says. "Just by living there and conversing with the locals on a daily basis, you get a very good idea of where the differences lie at a cultural and business level."

The classes were tailored for the international exchange, which meant students weren't exposed to the typical CEIBS student experience. But Sheridan believes this was the right approach. "We had an excellent induction in doing business in China, including all the dos and don'ts. It was far more valuable than trying to learn marketing and finance with the Chinese students."

At the end of the exchange, Sheridan stayed on for a further four months to research the Chinese market for Kerry Group, something he says would have been impossible without the induction at CEIBS.

Unlike many of its competitors, the Dublin business school has limited its exchange programme to just two schools, CEIBS and the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore.

"We get approached by a lot of schools to set up exchanges, but as a small school with a one-year programme, we have to be very careful," says programme director Nick Barniville. "The concept of educational tourism is not really on our agenda."

MBA students are capable of making their own contacts in Europe and the US, but they might otherwise struggle to spend time doing project work in China or India, says Barniville. "We feel this exposure gives our students a competitive edge."

Other institutions take a different approach. Lancaster University Management School, for example, has exchanges with 14 different institutions. IESE in Barcelona has agreements with 23 schools. For many students, this is an opportunity to add a prestigious US business school to the CV: it is the top US schools that are most prized on the IESE exchange programme. It's the same at London Business School (LBS).

"There's a constant interest in the top US business schools, but we are seeing more students who are interested in growing economies, such as South Africa, Brazil and India," says LBS associate dean Julia Tyler.

These exchanges raise issues of consistency. Does a B grade in one school equal a B in another? How integrated are the courses? And while a three-month stint at Columbia or Wharton is likely to enhance the student's learning experience, what assurances can be made for standards in lesser-known business schools in emerging economies?

"We have a set of quality criteria to make sure we are working with the best in the country," says Tyler. "Some countries are not touched by accreditation, so we look for their standing within their own national system."

Luis Palencia, academic director at IESE, agrees that the reputation of the partner schools offers a certain quality assurance. But, if student feedback were to reveal problems, the school would suspend the exchange.

Tyler takes a different view: "Part of the adventure is to just go and be a student in that school. If that brings shocks and surprises, then welcome to life. We want our students to learn to adapt quickly and develop as international citizens," she says.

Not all business schools see value in international exchanges. Edward Snyder, dean of the Chicago Graduate School of Business, believes these programmes often run into conflicts over differences in practice, sharing of proceeds, free-rider problems and scheduling. Chicago has gone down a different route, making green-field investments in campuses in Singapore and London in order to offer "pure Chicago" programmes in an international setting.

It's also not clear that an exchange gives students a competitive edge in the job market. "The addition of a meaty MBA from a good school is very valuable, but it's a moot point whether a three-month stint in Beijing will make a huge difference to your employability," says Ian McNeil, of leading headhunter Odgers Ray & Berndtson.

Yet most business schools are determined to bolster their international credentials, believing this to be a key selling point in a crowded MBA market. Aston Business School in Birmingham will launch its Global Leaders MBA in January 2008, in partnership with the Warrington College of Business in Florida and Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School in Belgium.

Over an 18-month programme, students from across the world will come together for five two-week intensive study blocks at each of the three partner schools, plus sessions at the University of Beijing in China and S P Jain in India.

"This is aimed at a really senior person who is being groomed for the top, who needs to look at things from a global perspective and who can't take a year out to do a full-time MBA," says Aston's Dr Gareth Griffiths.

The programme will expose these higher flyers to the strengths of the different business schools, but Griffiths acknowledges that two weeks in Beijing will only provide a taster of business life in that country. "But it might whet their appetite to set up operations in that country," says Griffiths.

This, it seems, is the real value of the international exchange: it is a toe in the water. Students - and employers - can decide later whether it was worth getting wet.

'Working with Africa's future leaders was eye-opening'

London Business School graduate David Farkas spent three months of his MBA on an exchange at the University of Cape Town.

I had worked in North America, South America and now I was studying in Europe, so it made sense to look at Africa, particularly as I saw the courses in Cape Town were aligned with the work I had been doing at LBS.

The students in South Africa were mainly South African, so it took me some time to get up to speed with the group work, because the dynamics were more set than in London. There was also a different teaching style - they tended to use material from other business schools - which made me really appreciate the consistency and quality of teaching here in London.

But all the other opportunities were invaluable, and I would definitely do it again. The opportunity to work with people who will eventually become leaders of Africa was really eye-opening, and I've stayed in contact with many of them.