Part-time, but with a difference

The Euro MBA combines home study with residential trips to build contacts

An oft-cited criticism of distance-learning MBAs is that they isolate students from their peers, depriving them of the day-to-day dynamism of the business school environment. Part-time programmes, meanwhile, are often characterised by the high numbers of applicants drawn from their immediate surroundings - a contrast to the celebrated international mix of many full-time MBA cohorts.

But if either of these were ever meant to be rules of thumb, no one told the architects of the Euro MBA. In the 13 years since its inception, this two-year executive programme - delivered by a consortium of six leading European schools - has overcome many of the perceived weaknesses of other flexible MBA course structures. It reconvenes its students every three months for exams and seven-day residentials, preceded by lavish team-building exercises ranging from sailing races to rugby matches. They remain connected in the meantime by online tools ranging from Twitter to Lotus Notes.

"In the past, when people studied MBAs from home they often never finished them, and most part-time programmes were geared towards people in their local areas looking to fit evening classes around their jobs," explains programme director Dr Stuart Dixon. "At the time we launched this course, no one talked about e-learning. Then the guy who designed it started using Lotus Notes to upload materials linked directly to the quarterly residentials.

"By giving students the flexibility to study and communicate with each other online wherever they are, and inviting them all in for quarterly residentials, we've made our programme much more international than most part-time MBAs. This helps us attract students who want the classic MBA experience of being able to network with people from all over the world."

Five minutes spent chatting to the class of 2009 would convince even the most hardened Euro MBA sceptic of the programme's cosmopolitan credentials. In a coffee-break between introductory sessions during a residential at the Audencia Nantes School of Management, I meet Florence Karera, 36, a senior United Nations human resources officer. In the space of two minutes, Karera runs through a CV that makes her sound like a one-woman advert for internationalism. Rwandan-born, she has worked for the UN in locations ranging from Kosovo to New York before being posted to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Florence's gruelling schedule means she rarely sees her two-year-old daughter, Simbi, who lives with her partner in Kenya, but she explains her "Euro MBA baby" is already well travelled, having accompanied her mother to a previous residential in Poland.

"The international nature of this MBA is what appeals to me," says Florence. "I like the idea that it is authored by different universities, and that we move from Barcelona to Maastricht. I hadn't ever seen that before. Whenever you go to a different country for a residential, you get a real feel for its culture."

At 59, Glaswegian Mike Mann is the oldest in this particular cohort. He is an accountant by profession and is now working as a consultant on various development projects led by the EU while living in the West Indies. He skipped O-levels in his youth, and the extent of his academic qualifications was a business diploma from Glasgow Technical College before he enrolled on the Euro MBA. But he says the experience has motivated him to consider reading for a PhD.

"I've come late to this - I started working overseas 20 years ago, and I've been a tax exile ever since," he says candidly. "I love this to bits, though. I'm meeting people from all over, and learning about different perspectives."

Besides adopting a week-long residential format - as opposed to the frantic one or two-day "boot camps" shoehorned in between working weeks by many distance-learning courses - the structure of the Euro MBA is unique in other ways. The fact that residentials rotate between different countries (courtesy of the locations of the various partner institutions) effectively renders the programme's "campus" as multinational as its intake. Group projects undertaken during residential weeks are organised in such a way that students shuffle teams from one to another, ensuring no one works with the same colleague twice. As the programme has two annual entry-points, September and January, some students' first module is their classmates' fifth.

Dixon sums up: "Normally with MBA courses, you get stuck with the same people for the whole year or two years. After a while, you think, 'I know everyone now - I need to meet other people'. If you don't like the group you're in, you're stuffed. With this programme, people come and go the whole time."

Students are mingling with those at later stages in their studies from the word go. The first half of each residential coincides with a marathon four-day introduction seminar for raw recruits (focusing on everything from writing skills to multicultural communication). Evening social events cut across dividing lines, giving freshers an opportunity to pick the brains of older hands.

This September's intake is distinguished by an unusually high proportion of expats. Among these is Cesare Pagahi, 35, an Italian emigre who describes the Netherlands as home, but spends much of his time working as a marine contractor for the oil and gas industries off the Angolan coast. Given his dizzyingly peripatetic lifestyle, it's no surprise to learn Cesare was attracted to the Euro MBA by the intensive nature of its residential weeks.

As he heads off for the sinuous ten-minute tram ride into central Nantes at the end of his induction, Cesare reflects: "I travel to a lot of remote places. I needed an executive MBA that allotted specific portions of time for residentials. The problem with some distance courses is that every few weeks you've got to go somewhere else. That's simply impossible for me. The intensity of these residential weeks, and the fact they're set well in advance, helps me plan around them."

If the students sound like they're a multicultural bunch, their lecturers are no less diverse. Dr Ludovico Alcorta (known as "Ludo") is a charismatic former banker who's just driven the 500 miles from Maastricht to Nantes to deliver his introductory session on technology and innovation management.

"I was born in Peru - only born. Don't ask me where I belong, because I don't know!" he announces at the start of his talk. One by one, heads nod sympathetically around the lecture-theatre. He appears to be in good company.

For more details of the Euro MBA programme, visit euromba.org

KEY FACTS

* The Euro MBA was launched in 1996 by the Open University of the Netherlands.

* It's administered by the University of Maastricht Business School and taught by a consortium of six centres: Audencia Nantes School of Management; Kozminski University, Warsaw; IAE Graduate School of Management, Aix-en-Provence; Leipzig Graduate School of Management; and EADA, Barcelona.

* The programme boasts a 93 per cent completion rate - with only 13 out of 185 students ever having left before graduating.

* Nine out of 10 Euro MBA graduates get pay rises and 35 per cent change jobs within a year of completing.

* The 2009 cohort contains a 70-30 male-female split, with 22 nationalities represented - ranging from Moroccan to Slovakian.

* The programme is fully accredited by the Association of MBAs, and has Equis and AACSB accreditation via the individual participating schools.

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