The academic jet set: Students seek far-flung MBAs

Low-cost air travel means students are increasingly choosing a school far from home, says Amy McLellan
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The Independent Online

Budget airlines have opened up the skies over Europe for all sorts of people: stag parties, second-home owners and, it now seems, MBA students.

Alex von Liliencron, for example, commutes from Munich, where he is a consultant with Munich Reinsurance, to Stansted or Heathrow in order to study at Ashridge Business School in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire.

"The low-cost opportunity influenced my choice to go to the UK to study," says Alex, who points out that low-cost competition from the budget airlines, which fly into Stansted, has pushed down prices on Lufthansa and BA, opening up the option of flying into Heathrow.

"Surprisingly, if I book in advance, Lufthansa is always cheaper than BA or Easyjet and the onward travel from the airport is much more convenient and faster," he says, launching into a cost/benefit analysis of ticket prices and connection times.

This is something those who decide to commute across Europe - and sometimes further - to study for an executive MBA (Emba) have in common: an in- depth knowledge of the airline industry.

"Our students are always comparing and contrasting how much they paid to fly in," says Dr Boris Porkovich of the International University of Monaco. "They are always swapping tips on air fares and frequent flyer programmes."

Monaco's Emba, which requires attendance on campus for six modules of eight days each over the course of 18 months, has 22 students enrolled, including the sister of easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou. Students fly in from Italy, France, Greece, Poland and even Australia. Warwick Business School has seen the proportion of international students on its Emba, which involves coming to the campus three or four times a year for five-day study modules, grow from 17 per cent to 24 per cent in the last five years.

The airfare price war means far-flung students no longer have to rely on distance learning to attend their chosen business school. It also allows high achievers, with their increasingly mobile and demanding careers, to commit to programmes of study regardless of where their jobs take them.

Rena Kalogianni, for example, signed up for a part-time MBA at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business while working for Hewlett-Packard in Grenoble. "The one-week-in-six structure allowed me to remain in a job I enjoyed," says Rena. "However, one year into my MBA I decided to move to Madrid, working for a new team in the European marketing group. Rather than give up my MBA or transfer to a different business school, I decided to fly back to Grenoble every six weeks, using low-cost flights."

It's not just planes that are opening up part-time programmes to new customers: Europe's high-speed train network also plays a role. Once a month Antoine Breton, an MBA student and consultant who lives in Folkestone, takes the Eurotunnel shuttle to Calais to catch the TGV to Paris, where he is studying at ESC Lille. "Some of the students are travelling from Madagascar, Lebanon and Brussels, so I am one of the local ones," says Breton.

The explosion of low-cost travel has given rise to a new breed of MBA. Business schools, competing for students, have identified a new niche: the weekend Emba. Or, perhaps more accurately, the long weekend Emba, as classes tend to start on a Thursday and finish on a Sunday.

Cass Business School in the City of London launched its weekend programme, called the Modular Executive MBA, in May. "This reflects an increasing need for more flexible programmes that cause minimum disruption to work, income and personal commitments such as family," says a Cass spokeswoman. There are 23 students in the current intake, of which only six are from the UK, with the balance flying in from destinations as far-flung as India, South Africa, Kazakhstan and Australia.

ESCP-EAP's London campus will launch its weekend programme (known as the European Executive MBA Monthly Track) in January. The nine core courses will be taught in monthly modules, with each module starting at 10am on Thursday and finishing at 1.30pm on Saturday. The core electives will be delivered on the London campus but students can opt to study their electives on any of the business school's five European campuses.

Tanaka Business School's weekend Emba, which has attracted students from Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Gibraltar and Oman, got underway in April and the first-year intake was double the forecast numbers. Ebrahim Mohammed, programme director, admits that the liberalising of air routes across Europe - and the increasing willingness of students to travel to London - was a key factor in deciding to launch the weekend Emba.

"On our normal weekday part-time programme we had oil executives flying in from Aberdeen once a fortnight, which is an inconvenient way to study," says Mohammed. "This is more intense: students spend two weeks preparing, then a weekend of intensive study here, followed by two weeks of consolidation supported by our e-learning community."

These weekend programmes are not for the faint-hearted. Students fly in on the Thursday and are often straight into classes, followed by dinner and group work in the evening. Classes then run intensively over the next two and a half days, before students jet back out to resume their professional and personal lives. It requires acute time-management skills and lots of energy to make this work - not to mention the administrative support of the business school.

"We did research into this and found people can make it in on time from all the major cities in Europe, except for Russia," says Mohammed. "Classes start at 2pm on Thursday and they leave at lunchtime on Sunday, which gives them an opportunity to get away, apart from those in Russia who would have to stay an extra night."