Why Europe's the business

When it comes to business schools, INSEAD in France and IMD in Switzerland are among the cream. So, which one to choose?
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The Independent Online

For those considering an MBA from a top European school with a strong international focus, the chances are that INSEAD in France and IMD in Switzerland will be high on your list. How do these two hothouses for high-flyers compare?

For those considering an MBA from a top European school with a strong international focus, the chances are that INSEAD in France and IMD in Switzerland will be high on your list. How do these two hothouses for high-flyers compare?

Both INSEAD and IMD are tucked away from the distractions of the big city; INSEAD's European campus is at Fontainebleau on the edge of one of Europe's largest forests near Paris, and IMD is on the shores of Switzerland's beautiful Lac Léman.

Yet, if you opt for the intensive full-time one-year MBA course at either of these schools, you are unlikely to have much time to admire the scenery. As you burn the midnight oil, you will spurred on by the knowledge that an MBA from one of continental Europe's top-rated schools could give a significant boost to your career prospects. Both INSEAD and IMD highlight their emphasis on global business for the internationally mobile manager. Both are stand-alone schools, unconnected to a university. However, there is one highly significant difference. Whereas INSEAD has almost 900 MBA students enrolled in a given year, IMD has only 90.

"It's a strategic choice to keep our intake small," explains Professor Sean Meehan, director of IMD's MBA programme. "A real benefit for our students is easy access to faculty members. Keeping the intake low means everyone gets to know one another."

Ben Ring chose IMD specifically because he wanted a smaller and more personal feel to the course. According to this former lawyer, now working as a business analyst for Shell in the Middle East, "There was a real esprit de corps in our group at IMD. The sense of community was very strong."

"We are a large school because to be truly diverse, it's essential to have participants drawn from many countries," says Antonio Fatás, dean of the INSEAD MBA programme, which has 73 nationalities represented on its full-time course. He points out that this large annual intake also has a major impact on the size and diversity of the worldwide alumni network, regarded as a key INSEAD strength.

For INSEAD MBA student Sally Purves from Hertfordshire, who has been working for a humanitarian relief organisation in Angola and Iran, this class size is a real plus. "I have really enjoyed learning from people with diverse backgrounds from different professions, all with drive and ambition. As well as people from corporates, INSEAD attracts people from the not-for-profit sector. This mixture has been stimulating."

For its part, IMD believes that orchestrating diversity is vital. "You won't find yourself in a class with 10 consultants from the same country and there will probably be 40 other nationalities represented in your year. There is no home turf at IMD. You will have an intense, multicultural experience," says Meehan.

INSEAD differs from IMD in one other major respect. The school has a second fully-integrated campus in Singapore, where the majority of MBA students elect to spend part of their course. The opportunity to cover part of the MBA programme in an entirely different cultural and business environment has proved one of the main attractions for Purves. "Spending two months on the Singapore campus gaining an Asian perspective and learning about this huge growth market was extremely valuable. Singapore was also very appealing from a lifestyle perspective. We had a lot of fun between the learning."

Both schools favour applicants with a number of years' work experience under their belt. "With five to eight years behind them, our candidates tend to be a little bit older than on many MBA programmes," says IMD's Meehan. "By then, you will have made major business decisions such as opening or closing a factory. We think that those extra years will be of benefit when you are learning alongside senior people at the same level."

INSEAD also prefers applicants with significant experience, averaging out at five years. The average age is currently 29. To underline its commitment to an international focus, INSEAD insists on applicants having two languages, including fluent English, and they must acquire a working knowledge of a third language to graduate.

How do their approaches to teaching vary? "At IMD, the emphasis is on developing your leadership skills and our course has been specifically tailored around this," says Meehan.

INSEAD, meanwhile, stresses the importance it attaches to reinforcing teamwork, class participation and cooperation between the many nationalities represented. Fatás also points to the value of INSEAD's wide-ranging research programme, the benefits of which filter down to the students on the MBA course. "INSEAD's faculty are constantly writing books, generating articles and having an impact in both academic and business worlds. In this respect, we believe we have a totally different model from IMD, where the focus is on teaching rather than research."

Both business schools are expensive. Full-time MBA fees stand at around £30,000 for INSEAD and £33,000 for IMD. But will it be worth the investment? You can gain reassurance from the fact that major international recruiters see both schools as promising pools in which to fish for MBA graduates with strong international exposure and a global mindset. INSEAD has around 100 companies knocking on its doors each year to give presentations and IMD's extensive corporate connections are a major boost to the global recruitment process.

With two schools of this calibre, size may be the factor that ultimately matters most when making your choice. Whether you opt to study at the boutique business school by the Swiss lake or the far larger INSEAD near the French forest, with its sister campus in Singapore, you will be equipping yourself with a bankable qualification to underpin the next phase of your international career.