European institutions are offering business courses taught in English. Will British students take the bait? Steve McCormack reports

The time is fast approaching - perhaps it's here already - when the possession of a Masters degree hardly raises an eyebrow among groups of educated twenty-somethings. And among those set on a career in the commercial world, a business Masters is an increasingly common CV entry, helping the discerning graduate to acquire visibility in the ever-deepening pool of first degrees holders.

Although the vast majority of business-bound Brits gain these postgrad qualifications at schools in the UK, the opportunities to venture across the Channel are growing all the time. The benefits are obvious: an international dimension to study and a CV with even more added value.

This option isn't, of course, limited to talented linguists. The majority of schools, and certainly all of the leading institutions around Europe, now offer courses taught in English. But for those with an existing aptitude for foreign languages, or with the desire to acquire greater fluency, there are also plenty of opportunities to mix management education with the consolidation of commercial language skills in two or three tongues.

Although the variety of business-related Masters is wide, there are some broad categories achieving prominence in the marketplace. Among these is the Masters in international management (MIM) offered by schools belonging to the Community of European Management Schools (CEMS). This grouping of 17 schools, with links to nearly 50 top multinational companies, includes work experience on its courses.

The schools offer a truly cross-European spread, from Dublin in the west, Bergen in the north, Budapest in the east and Barcelona on Europe's western edge.

Every year, a total of 600 students from CEMS schools join the MIM programme, which they follow in parallel to their "home" Masters course. The common elements, compulsory to all MIM participants, are spending at least one term at a different CEMS school and completing a 10-week international internship.

The CEMS partner companies - businesses with internationally renowned names - provide intern placements. At the end of the year, students effectively have two qualifications: their Masters plus the MIM.

It is very competitive to get on the CEMS programme, and, to date, only a small number of British students have participated. In an average year, only around five out of 600 are British. This may be explained by the need for students to speak three languages at a high level.

But there are plenty of avenues for those who are less accomplished linguist-ically. If there was ever proof of the internationalisation of business education, it is the fact that, even in culturally proud France, most top business schools now offer Masters taught in English.

"We want to play the global game," explains Hervé Crès, associate dean at HEC in Paris, one of France's string of "Grande écoles", the top-drawer business schools with academic pedigree dating from Napoleon's time.

At the moment, it is mainly English-speaking students from outside the UK who are taking advantage of these courses. Crès thinks that is, in part, due to the reluctance of British students to leave what they know is a reputable higher education system in the UK.

However, there are exceptions, and successful ones at that. Among them is Ian Marsh, 23, who is half way through a two-year Master of science management at HEC, having done a first degree in history and economics at Oxford University.

"I fancied living in Paris for a couple of years, and I was also attracted by the international scope of the HEC course. I don't think you learn quite as much at UK business schools," he explains.

Marsh had done A-level French and increased his level of fluency when his parents moved to France, which he found made the social side of living in Paris easier. But a large proportion of his international contemporaries at HEC arrive with no French at all. And, he says, the linguistic barrier is decreasing as the non-French contingent on the HEC course is growing, from 55 students two years ago to 80 this year.

Another striking feature of business Masters across Europe is the way schools are working together to offer multi-centred courses - a model that has already proved successful in the MBA field.

A good example of this is the collaboration between the University of Bradford's School of Management, EADA in Barcelona, the Leon Kozminski Academy of Entrepreneurship and Management in Warsaw, and Audencia School of Management in Nantes on the French Atlantic coast.

Together, these four institutions are offering the international Master in management (IMM), which enables students, based at each of the four institutions, to take some elements of the 12-month course at partner schools. Participants can even attend a series of lectures in one school, and take the exams when they arrive at their second chosen location.

In business education terms, one major selling point is the diversity of countries represented, France being an EU founder country, Poland a recent entrant, Spain providing the Mediterranean aspect, and the UK offering the "Anglo-Saxon" approach.

Teaching at all four locations is in English, and the cohorts since the IMM was launched a year ago have been internationally very mixed. However, take-up has varied between schools. Audencia and EADA have around 30 students each this year and Warsaw around half a dozen. But Bradford has only three, of whom one is British, among a total intake of 288 on all its Masters courses.

"The students who have done it have said how fabulous it is," says Patrick Barber, who runs all pre-experience Masters courses at Bradford. "However, British students are not very risky, and it takes some 'oomph' to do a course where you have to move between two or more different places."

Barber also suspects that the language factor is responsible for British students' lack of enthusiasm for courses based in Europe. "Even if the teaching is in English, you still have to buy your groceries in the local language," he says.

However, that doesn't deter adventurous souls, such as Isata Boie-Kamara, a British-Sierra Leonian with a degree in actuarial mathematics and statistics from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. She's midway through an MSc in financial engineering at the International University of Monaco.

There are 11 on her course, from almost as many different countries. Teaching is in English, but she hasn't found having only school-level French a disadvantage at all. In fact, it's proved more of an incentive to her.

"I now realise that you do have to make an effort in foreign languages, even if most business is done in English," she says.

'Being academically active in two countries will be a plus for my CV'

Alexander Bunch, 24, is currently in his second and final year of a Master in science management at HEC in Paris, one of France's leading business schools. The course has an international student cohort and is taught in English. In 2004, he graduated from Bristol University in Economics and Econometrics, a course that included a year at Trier University in Germany.

There are two reasons why I decided to do a Masters here. It was partly because I'm half French, but also because the reputation of these Grand Écoles in the business world is very good. That's a big factor.

The first year here consisted mainly of the mainstream business topics - marketing, finance, accounting, law etc - most of which was pretty new to me. The economics I'd done at Bristol was pretty academic and not practical. That was a good grounding, but much of the added value of HEC is not necessarily academic. It is as much to do with getting a first taste of the business world by joining, and working for, the various extracurricular societies. I got very involved in the music society, for example. This side of life at the business school is very much pushed at HEC.

After the first year I took a year out to do a work placement at IBM in Paris, and now I'm back at HEC doing an entrepreneurial major, which is the last element of my course. One of the tasks is to create a company, and another is to identify a company that is down and try to bring it back up.

I realise that I've taken two years to do the type of Masters that I could have done in one in the UK, but I think that having been academically active in two countries will be an undeniable plus for my CV.

It has also widened my network much more that if I'd stayed in the UK.

'The international part meant I had a rollercoaster year'

Houssam Bachir, 24, has just finished a one-year international Master in management at Audencia School of Management in Nantes. He went there having graduated with a BA in French from Reading University, a course which included a year out at a business school in Poitiers.

Having done a year of my first degree at a business school, I knew that I wanted to do a business Masters. I thought about staying in the UK, but I was attracted to the reputation that French business schools have, and obviously I had the French language as well.

I was at Nantes for the first three months, studying the basic business modules, such as finance, marketing etc, and then I went to Bradford for the next three months. While I was at there, I took the exams covering the Audencia work. The papers were sent back to Audencia for marking.

Two days later I was on a plane to Warsaw for the Polish part, where all the IMM students from Nantes, Barcelona and Bradford meet up. In my group, we had to do a computer simulation of the running of a company.

Then it was off to Barcelona for two-and-a-half months, where I met another Brit, a law graduate, who was doing her IMM based at Barcelona.

Through some family contacts I was able to do my case study with a steel tube manufacturing business in Algeria, in a place called Batna, 500km south-east of Algiers.

All of the lectures were in English but while I was in France, my French was obviously useful. It made living easier and some of the background reading was in French.

Overall, I think the course has given me transferable skills for the workplace. The international aspect meant that I had a rollercoaster of a year, which was just as unpredictable as it was enjoyable.