A new MBA course seeks to break the mould in Germany to attract international stars, says Hilary Wilce

Germany has long lagged behind in the MBA market, but this could soon change as a major new player sets out to make its mark on the international map. This January the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), in Berlin, embarks on its first full-time MBA course. Like leading programmes around the world, the aim was to take in high-quality students with several years of working experience under their belts, and to teach them via team work, role plays and case studies, emphasising softer management skills along with technical expertise.

"We are deliberately aiming at an international market," says president Derek Abell. "Everything is in English. We are going for a global reach. Germany has not had a really international management school before, but we are looking to be in a class with maybe 15 or 16 other schools worldwide."

He believes that a course rooted in the heart of Europe, with close ties to industry, will attract students from all continents. And with 18 countries represented in the school's first intake of 29 students, the signs are promising.

But it will be a long haul for any German business school to pull itself free of the country's reputation for a highly theoretical and rigidly structured system of management education. Despite the size of the German economy, there is almost no tradition of MBAs as understood elsewhere in the Western world, and most German managers and business leaders still follow a straight four- or five-year academic run through undergraduate and then post-graduate education before launching into jobs.

"There are more than 150 MBA providers, but they are academically driven, their courses are not in English, and they don't have that international aspect to them which is a very important issue for employers," says Joachim von Berg, director of operations for Henley Management College in Germany, which has offered management education, including a long-distance MBA, in the country for 20 years. "But this is starting to change because companies are saying our classical education is not meeting the needs of business."

One that is changing is ESMT, which was founded in 2002 with the sponsorship of 25 leading companies including DaimlerChrysler, Deutsche Bank, Lufthansa and ThyssenKrupp, and which has initially put itself on the map through executive education programmes. So far more than 4,000 students have gone through these. "And the MBA is an extension of that," says Abell, who aims to couple traditional German thoroughness with a forward-looking view of management. Students will build basic competencies, he says, but also look at deeper issues: "A sense of responsibility will be very strongly featured, which young people these days are looking for."

"This is very new in Germany," says Francis Bidault, director of the MBA programme. "All other courses are coming from the university world. We are coming from the world of executive education, where we are the biggest player by a long margin. And we have a mandate from our sponsors to do something new in an MBA. We will be emphasising a German/European perspective as opposed to a Wall Street-type management view, and we will be looking at things from the perspective of all the stakeholders ."

At €50,000 (£35,000), the course is expensive. However sponsoring companies have set up a £1.5m MBA scholarship fund and no student this year is paying the full amount.

ESMT launches into the MBA market as various pressures squeeze traditional German universities. One is the effect of the recent Bologna Accord, which aims to harmonise degree programmes across Europe. As a result of this, Germany's traditional five-year programmes are being split into three-year undergraduate degrees, followed by two-year masters programmes.

Howeverm, Paul Danos, dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, USA, who recently chaired a high-level academic round table on the future of German business schools, points out that this classical education route is still the main one, with no tradition of graduates going out into the workplace before resuming their studies. "This is part of the cultural experience. People don't want to be a full-time employee until they are well into their twenties. Also, in Germany, once you go into a field, you're not expected to change, while the reason MBAs are so successful in the US and the UK is that they give people the chance to get onto a second path."

However he sees that change is coming. He says, German schools are moving away from their traditional "super-professors and teaching assistants" to a more flexible Anglo-Saxon and American model where several faculty members are broadly equal.

Couple these changes with the increased calls from German-based business for adaptable leaders with a global perspective, and you have a management education scene which could change more rapidly than most people expect.

Meanwhile, demand for MBAs is spreading in Eastern Europe where rapid economic development is offering burgeoning opportunities for trained business leaders. The result is a range of courses of variable quality, although some are now winning international reputations. In Hungary, the George Soros-backed CEU Business School recently made it to number 16 on the Financial Times' ranking of the world's MBA courses, by offering an executive MBA programme, run in conjunction with universities abroad, which is able to give students an appreciation of US approaches to business as well as familiarity with the whole of Europe, both East and West.