Traditionally the US has been the spiritual home of the MBA, attracting the lion's share of applications from overseas and ruling the roost at the top of international league tables. However, recent figures suggest that Europe is an increasingly popular destination that can offer significant benefits to students.
Figures from Gmac's 2012 Application Trends Survey show that 37 per cent of European programmes reported a rise in application volumes for the 2012-2013 incoming class, compared to 22 per cent in 2011. European schools are also making an impact on the influential league tables, holding 25 of the top 100 spots.
The appeal is easily explained, says Jane Delbene, director of marketing for EMEA at Gmac. "European business schools have established such strong global brands in management education over the past few years that students no longer feel it's imperative to leave Europe for a respected business or management degree."
A course on the continent can offer practical, professional and even philosophical benefits to students. Full-time courses are shorter, taking 12 months instead of the two years generally required by US programmes. "This is an appealing format for students," says Delbene. "It allows them to return to the workforce faster." The shorter programmes can also bring financial savings, with fewer years of study to pay for.
Simply being overseas can improve students' prospects according to George Murgatroyd, research manager at the Association of MBAs. "Many MBA students see the benefit of gaining international experience by studying abroad," he says. "It provides fantastic opportunities to learn more about other cultures and countries – something that has real value in the workplace."
Overseas study is becoming more accessible, especially on the continent, he adds. "Given that many MBAs are part-time and taught in blocks, there is no need to move abroad in order to study an MBA. The ease of global travel has made attending a part-time MBA more like going on a series of business trips."
European study has specific advantages too, says Martin de Wit, director of international relations at Nyenrode Business Universiteit. "Europe has a strong educational tradition, and is one of the major trading blocks in the world with strong economies and known multinationals and other organisations."
In addition, the teaching philosophy and international cohort of European schools may help prepare students for the increasingly global marketplace in which they'll operate after graduation, argues Dirk Buyens, academic dean at Vlerick Business School. "The world future MBAs will work in will not respect the boundaries of the businesses of the past, geographical or otherwise," he says. "In continental Europe, there is more true diversity – both from a teaching perspective and in the diversity of students in the classroom."
The variety of courses and approaches offered by European schools means that students may be able to find exactly the course and institution to suit their needs. Bordeaux Management School runs an Amba-accredited wine and spirits MBA, for example, while at Emlyon the focus is on cultivating entrepreneurship, according to associate professor Rickie Moore. "Though our programme is a generalist one, students are able to pursue concentrations that allow them to develop their own specialisations."
It all adds up to an appealing package for employers, with graduates benefitting from the international experience a European MBA gives their CV. According to Gmac's Corporate Recruiters Survey, 48 per cent of employers like candidates who can speak multiple languages. "Studying abroad affords the chance to learn or improve an extra language, which opens up a range of new employment opportunities," says Professor Simon Evenett, director of the MBA Programme at the University of St Gallen, Switzerland.
Current St Gallen MBA student Lili Zhao, originally from the UK, certainly hopes to reap the potential benefits of a European education. "I hope I'll enrich not only my professional qualifications, but also that I'll be a more interesting and diverse individual on a personal level," she says.
So while US schools certainly have their attractions, their European counterparts have much to offer in terms of increasing students' technical knowledge and cultural awareness, as well as giving them a unique international perspective. Zhao's advice for anyone eyeing an MBA on the continent is clear. "Don't over-analyse the pros and cons of studying in Europe," she says. "Just go for it and enjoy the experience."
Case study: 'Use the MBA's networking potential'
Harvey Wells is a graduate of Nyenrode Business Universiteit and works as a consultant.
"I thought that an MBA in the Netherlands would give me a chance to build my networks and understanding of the business environment. Nyenrode provided me with the hoped-for friendly introduction to the Netherlands, and studying overseas has also provided me with an enhanced perspective on my own native country and culture.
Luckily the Netherlands is culturally and geographically close to the UK, and the Dutch are very open and friendly, so moving here has been easy. Learning Dutch to a reasonable standard has taken some effort (not least because the Dutch are so keen to speak English!) but has proved to be a very worthwhile investment, as it has enabled me to prove that I am serious about working in the Netherlands.
I hoped to get increased perspective, a new network and the benefit of a fresh start from studying my MBA overseas, and that is exactly what has happened. Alongside my consulting work I have been able to go on and build my own business – I've co-founded a beer brewing company.
My advice to students thinking of studying overseas is to look closely at the locations you'd like to work in after your MBA. Base your decision about where to study on that because of the networking potential an MBA programme provides you with."