Europe's B-Schools Are Soaring

Demand and admission standards are up, as students around the world look to sharpen business skills and add global credentials with a European MBA

Scott Addison always knew he wanted to go overseas for his MBA. The 32-year-old American, who spent 10 years working in financial public relations in New York, was looking to add a global edge to his career, which U.S. schools couldn't provide. Now he's more than halfway through the year-long MBA course at Cass Business School in London. Before graduating, he'll travel to Poland, South Africa, and China to work with local businesses—opportunities he says wouldn't have been possible if he'd stayed in the U.S.

"I looked at all the options back home, and nothing was the right fit," says the Indianapolis native. "The international experience was a huge draw for me; it creates a different MBA experience."

Addison's story isn't a one-off. In recent years, a growing number of foreign students have flocked to the continent's top MBA programs, such as London Business School, France's Insead and HEC, Switzerland's IMD, and Spain's powerhouse trio of IE, IESE, and Esade—all of which routinely draw dozens of nationalities into their ranks. The global perspectives offered by these programs, along with their strong links to multinational employers, such as consultancy Accenture (ACN) and banking giant Barclays (BCS), helped graduates land jobs even during the worst economic downturn since World War II.

"We're not concentrated on one specific industry, so our recruitment hasn't suffered compared with others," says Peter Lafferty, director of international business at Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School in Belgium, who adds that 80% of his program's international graduates land jobs across Western Europe.

Still Not the Glory Days

That doesn't mean it was easy for graduates to find work during the downturn. The slowdown in financial services and consulting hit especially hard, forcing some students to consider positions in industry or to look even further afield in the government and nonprofit sectors. Corporate recruiters are now starting to come back to campuses, but the job hunt hasn't returned to the golden days when MBA students were inundated with multiple offers and juicy bonuses. "The market is a lot better than it was a year ago, but it's nowhere near the boom," says Derek Walker, director of careers at Saïd Business School at Oxford University in England. "Rather than taking a couple of months [to find a job], it maybe takes three or four months."

To help students find jobs, career offices at the major schools are leaning more heavily than ever on their networks of alumni. They're also steering students into fields some might not have previously considered. Sandra Schwarzer, the director of careers at Insead in Fontainebleau, France, is especially keen on health care and pharmaceuticals, which she says weathered the downturn better than many other sectors and have garnered growing interest from students in recent years. She adds that MBAs are also increasingly interested in careers that combine business with social good, such as renewable energy and nonprofit work.

Competition for jobs is only heightened by the growing number of students coming out of Europe's leading MBA programs. Widespread layoffs in finance and industry induced many unemployed young people to ride out the recession by going back to school. That has stoked a mad dash for MBA spots. Barcelona-based Esade Business School, for instance, received 64% more applications this year than it did in 2009.

Staying Out of the Job Market

To meet demand, many schools like Esade have expanded their programs. The Barcelona school increased its class size from 150 to 180 and now offers student the chance to finish the course in either 12, 15, or 18 months. Tellingly, two-thirds have chosen the 18-month option, figuring they longer they're in school, the longer they stay off the job market.

At the same time, to cope with the crush of applicants, many schools have tightened their entrance requirements, demanding higher GMAT scores and more years of prior work experience. That makes it harder to get in, of course, but also raises the caliber of students. It's also prompting some would-be MBAs to consider smaller, lesser-known European programs that have carved out niches in emerging areas, such as innovation, social entrepreneurship, or luxury management.

In the end, the biggest draw for many applicants to European B-schools remains, well, Europe. The competition to get in is fierce, the job market is hard, and tough visa restrictions make it difficult for non-Europeans to stay on after graduation. But at least for the duration of their MBAs, students at European B-schools get to soak up the lifestyle while collaborating with some of the best and brightest minds from around the world.

And like Cass MBA Scott Addison, they can always dream of sticking around a while longer. He's interviewing for marketing and business development positions that will keep him in London. "It's got that big city vibe and is a center for global business," he says. "Staying here will help to globalize my career."

For an introduction to 23 of Europe's top MBA programs, prepared this year through a partnership between BusinessWeek and London-based QS, an independent expert on European MBA programs, see our slide show.

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