European MBA Programs: Hidden Gems

The biggest schools have already established global brands, but smaller programs are finding novel ways to stand out from the crowd

One of the consequences of the global economic downturn has been a growing conservatism among prospective MBA candidates. Concerned about getting the best return on the substantial investment of time, effort, and money a program entails, many have taken what they see as the safe option and opted for one of the big-name brands in business education.

In Europe, this has allowed Insead to expand its class to a staggering 980 full time MBA students. IE in Madrid continues to attract candidates motivated by the school's reputation with recruiters. And HEC Paris is reporting that in addition to rising applicant numbers, the quality and diversity of candidates are also now markedly better, measured by higher than ever GMAT scores and a greater proportion of women.

How are institutions outside this Continental elite attracting the best and brightest in 2010? Perhaps not surprisingly, the schools still reporting healthy applicant numbers tend to be those that have found ways of differentiating themselves from the pack. In Germany, a country with a relatively short history of conventional business education, Berlin's ESMT attributes the 50% growth in its latest MBA class down to the continuing close involvement of its founders. The school was launched in 2002 by a consortium of Germany's top companies, including BMW (BAMXY), Deutsche Bank (DB), Lufthansa (DLAKY), and Siemens (SI), and they remain highly engaged on a day-to-day basis, providing visiting lecturers, internships, financial support to students, and employment opportunities. "Around half our MBAs end up joining one of the founding companies on graduation," says Zoltan Antal-Mokos, who is associate dean. "We think that's strong evidence that a business school actually founded by business is a successful model for management education."

Entrepreneurs Inside Big Companies

EM Lyon in the southeast of France has made itself stand out through a longstanding focus on entrepreneurship. At a time when many of the traditional employment routes for MBAs are looking decidedly rocky, this skill set is proving acutely important. The school teaches students not only how to set up their own businesses but also the techniques of "intrapreneurship," or the application of entrepreneurship within established businesses. As the school's dean, Patrice Houdayer, puts it: "Entrepreneurial leadership is arguably even more important in big businesses than in small companies. In uncertain times, our MBAs can help large organizations become as flexible as possible, to reflect rapidly changing markets."

Belgium's Vlerick Leuven Gent has emerged from relative obscurity in recent years to feature prominently in MBA rankings, and in 2009 it doubled the size of its MBA class. The school attributes its success to a strong record of helping graduates find jobs and to its innovative funding scheme. "We've never had the focus on banking and consultancy that other schools relied on, but we deliberately reached out to recruiters in a very wide range of sectors," says the international business director, Peter Rafferty. "It has meant we've been much less affected by the downturn. We also spotted back in 2008 that student funding would come under pressure because of the credit crunch, so we put together a scheme that's based on an individual's future potential rather than just their credit history. With so many other sources of funding drying up, it has proven very popular."

In the U.K., one of the biggest names in distance-learning MBAs, Warwick Business School, has kept up applications through a series of innovations to make the learning process more engaging. Introduced in 2009, wbsLive is a sophisticated virtual classroom that goes beyond the traditional online lecture model to let students interact with each other either singly or in study groups, wherever they are in the world. The system is now also being used as part of the school's MBA mentoring scheme, which allows current students to tap into the knowledge, experience, and contacts of alumni.

"Because of the diverse range of people we attract, the scheme has to be able to work on a truly international basis," says Tracy Lynch, a member of Warwick's alumni relations department. "Our students and alumni are spread across the globe, and the wbsLive facility allows them to interact almost as well as if they were sitting in the same room."

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