Russia: Building business schools for budding oligarchs

The Kremlin is backing two multi-million pound business schools - but they're only for the wealthy, says Andrew Osborn in Moscow
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The Independent Online

For more than seven decades entrepreneurship, the accumulation of capital, and Western-style management were dirty words in Russia. But 15 years after the collapse of Communism, the demand for MBA-trained top managers is burgeoning and young Russians are clamouring to arm themselves with the same business know-how as their Western counterparts.

So voracious is their appetite that the Kremlin is backing the opening of two multi-million pound business schools that it hopes will give the likes of Insead and MIT a run for their money.

The first school, in Moscow, has already been dubbed a business school for aspiring oligarchs run by bona fide oligarchs.

Officially called the Skolkovo Moscow School of Management, it will give students wealthy enough to afford the £27,000 course fee the chance to receive masterclasses from some of the country's most successful businessmen.

A clutch of Russia's most famous oligarchs has agreed to lend a hand including Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea Football Club. Andrei Volkov, Skolkovo's dean, says participating oligarchs will teach a small number of classes drawing on their own life experience every year.

Volkov's comments raise the tantalising possibility of the publicity-shy Abramovich and some of Russia's richest men, describing how they built up their enormous wealth in the anarchic Nineties.

Skolkovo is aiming to attract young risk-takers eager to cut their teeth in emerging markets such as Russia whose oil-driven economy is currently expanding at a rate of more than 6 per cent annually. President Vladimir Putin has already laid the school's foundation stone at an oligarch-studded ceremony.

Due to open its doors in 2008, Skolkovo is the brainchild of 14 individuals and companies, each of whom donated £2.7m. Its founding fathers reads like a who's who from Forbes' Russian rich list. Aside from Abramovich, others include Rustam Tariko, the vodka and banking oligarch worth an estimated £1bn, steel magnate Alexei Mordashov worth an estimated £4.5bn, and Viktor Vekselberg, the man who spent an estimated £50m to acquire the second largest collection of Russian Fabergé Easter Eggs in the world.

Being enrolled at Skolkovo will be the preserve of the few, though; it will take no more than 300 Russian and international students a year.

A run-down Tsarist palace in Putin's native St Petersburg will house Russia's other world-class business school. The Mikhail-ovskaya Estate is being painstakingly restored to give Russia's second city its own centre of business education excellence.

When completed, students will be taught in what were once the stables, while academic research will be conducted in the palace itself. Putin has offered his personal support to both the Moscow and St Petersburg projects. "The people trained here will eventually become the business elite of the 21st century," he says of Skolkovo. "The demand for top-class managerial personnel is really big. This is a period of intensive development in our country and we urgently need top-quality managers."

Aspiring MBA students currently have over 100 different courses to choose from within Russia itself. However, only around one third of these courses are recognised by the country's Ministry of Education and the quality of teaching in some institutions is sometimes reported to be too theoretical.

Statistically, only three in every 100,000 Russians have an MBA, compared to 70 in the United States, though between 3,000 and 5,000 MBA graduates are reportedly being turned out each year.

The best-known programmes are offered by the Moscow International Higher Business School (Mirbis), the Moscow-based Plekhanov Russian Academy of Economics, and the Academy of National Economy, also in Moscow, in association with Kingston Business School.

Durham Business School also offers a distance learning MBA in collaboration with the Moscow-based Sinerghia Institute of Economics and Finance. "We've had four or five intakes so far," says Guy Millen, Durham's programme manager for distance learning programmes. "We're very happy with it and we should have our first graduates this summer who will be awarded their MBAs in Durham Cathedral."

The Open University also has an MBA programme, which it delivers through a partner organisation called LINK, which has 90 study centres throughout the former Soviet Union.

Many young Russians also opt for distance learning MBAs offered by overseas business schools that don't have Russian partners. In the UK, Henley Management College offers an MBA programme (see below), while Newcastle Business School has designed an in-house MBA for executives from Russian steel giant Severstal.

Business schools from across Europe are also getting in on the act, such as Grenoble's Graduate School of Business, which delivers a part-time MBA in Moscow. Indeed non-Russian business schools say that Russian students have swelled their ranks in recent years.

For example, 10 Russians enrolled at the London campus of Chicago's Graduate School of Business last year making them the second best represented nationality.

'Everything is growing and developing, and I want to be part of that'

Roman Stepantsev, 30, is studying for a three-year MBA by distance learning with Henley Management College.

I started my MBA at Henley last September. I decided that I needed a high-quality European education. My employers cover the €30,000 costs; it is part of my compensation package. But even if they didn't I'd pay the fees myself. I feel that I am growing every day and broadening my opportunities.

I currently work in Moscow as the general director of the Russian outlet of Nilfisk Advance, a Danish firm that manufactures cleaning equipment. Since leaving school I've been working non-stop and have acquired a lot of experience, in sales, managing people, and of business development. But until now I've been making decisions based on intuition whereas I want to be able to draw on a large body of theoretical knowledge.

I have two degrees - one in philology and the other in finance and I speak fluent Russian, English and German. But I want to take my knowledge to a new level. The Russian economy is growing so quickly and there are so many mergers and acquisitions, far more than in the West. Everything is growing and developing, and I want to be part of that.

Distance learning and Henley's MBA programme suit me really well and should make sure that I'm ready to take advantage of the boom.

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