Ireland's Smurfit business school doesn't hide behind its tranquil exterior when it comes to innovation. Steve McCormack reports

WThe 19th-century red-bricked exterior, reassuring architectural lines and soothingly verdant surroundings can be deceptive. An old-school institution, perhaps, where learning proceeds at a meandering pace?

Not a bit of it. Behind this stylish façade, the Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business, part of University College Dublin, is unambiguously leading-edge: an image instantly confirmed on glimpsing students poised in front of laptops in lecture theatres, libraries and meeting rooms, linked to the internet via the building's wireless network.

For the last six years the school has ranked among Europe's top 20 business schools, and its MBA programme is fifth in the world on value for money - a measure balancing the cost of the programme (currently €24,500/£16,730 for the full-time MBA) against salaries of alumni three years after graduation.

But the dean, Dr Damien McLoughlin, appointed at the end of last year, is aiming much higher. Within five years, he wants to be counted in Europe's top 10, and well inside the world's top 25.

"We are trying to get further ahead by doubling our revenue, our faculty, our number of chairs and the number of international students," he explains.

Central to that quest is a healthily funded marketing campaign that emphasises the school's strengths and attracts the highest calibre teaching staff and students. Among the selling points are the physical surroundings and facilities - what McLoughlin refers to as a winning infrastructure. And it is easy to see how the combination of spacious, modern classrooms, convenient and comfortable catering facilities and an abundance of new study flats makes an enticing proposition to potential applicants.

As with all business schools, the health and success of the flagship MBA programme is a symbol of overall prestige. At Smurfit, the full-time cohort currently stands at 62, of whom 28 are from outside Ireland. Part of the school's future strategy is to achieve and maintain a 50 per cent proportion of international students.

Those now midway through their MBA praise the overall Dublin experience, but point out that the rigours of the course don't give them much spare time. "It's a pretty hectic pace, particularly in the first term," one told me. Most, too, highlight the thoroughness and breadth of study in core areas, picking up what McLoughlin views as a strength of the Smurfit MBA - "a very strong general management qualification".

Another asset is the effort the school puts in to helping students achieve their career aspirations. "Our satisfied alumni are the best possible champions of the school," says Tony Somers, director of European recruiting, and part of a team of five permanent careers staff.

This is an ever-present component of the MBA programme. There's a constant drive to help students to enhance their presentation skills, and experts are brought in to lecture on job search strategies, salary negotiation and interview techniques.

This care will clearly help, via word of mouth, to recruit future MBAs, along with the annual Smurfit Experience Days. These give groups of potential applicants the opportunity to spend four days in Dublin, during which time they attend lectures, meet current students and staff, and - a vital selling point - experience the unique attractions of Irish culture and hospitality. If they don't know the meaning of the word "craic" before they come, they'll certainly understand it by the time they leave.

There are separate days for European and North American potential students, and the nominal fee, around £300, is fully refundable if the individual ends up on a Smurfit MBA.

Most of the funding for these events comes from John Duffy, one of an impressive list of Irish-American benefactors sitting on the school's North American board which, together with its domestic equivalent, provides substantial support and influence in the highest of circles.

The links across the Atlantic, combined with Ireland's wholehearted embrace of the European Union, enable the school to claim a unique strength - "as comfortable dealing with Berlin as Boston," goes the sales pitch. It's a neat way of flagging up weaknesses in US links at some mainland European institutions and Euro scepticism tendencies in the UK.

In summary, the Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business likes to see itself both leading and catching the wave of economic and cultural progress that seems to be driving the whole of Ireland forward.

'At times I hated the intensity. But by the end, I thoroughly enjoyed it'

Trish Commons, 31, finished her full-time MBA last year. She now works for Ion Equity, a corporate finance house in Dublin, advising on mergers and acquisitions of technology companies, and on the raising of venture capital for start-ups in the same sector. Her previous job was in software programme management.

"I wanted to do an MBA when I decided that there was more to life than software management. I was intrigued by the financial and business sides of running companies. I chose the Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business because of its reputation.

For me the MBA experience was a story of two parts. In the first term I was just getting up to speed; in fact at times I hated the intensity and volume of work. But in the second term, when we started to apply the knowledge, I started to like it. And by the end I was thoroughly enjoying it.

I loved the international mix of students from a lot of different backgrounds on my course. There's a huge amount to learn outside the formal course. And the teamwork element is a great part of the experience.

The MBA opens a lot of doors and gives you many networking opportunities. It directly enabled me to get the short-term contracts, which led me to the job which I am now doing."