Europe finally finds MBAs are assets, and its schools are booming

The B-school business is booming in Europe. Ask Elroy Dimson, director of the prestigious London Business School's MBA program. He's swamped with applications. Over the next couple of years, the school will increase enrollment by 40 percent and more than double its tuition. ``There's nothing we can do to deter people,'' he jokes. The story is the same across the Continent. Workers spent the summer beginning a planned expansion of France's INSEAD, already Europe's biggest business school. At Geneva's International Management Institute (IMI), applications - 3,500 for just 50 spaces a year - have doubled in the last five years.

Business school hasn't always been that popular in Europe. Since upper management has traditionally been the preserve of the European upper classes, an MBA wasn't necessary - or even desirable. In the United States, the MBA is often used to move up the social and economic ladder; the more rigid European hierarchies didn't encourage the same upward mobility.

Many Europeans also questioned the value of theoretical, academic business training. They favored a system of apprenticeships and internal education for rising executives. ``European companies like to train their own people after they've spent a few years dirtying their fingers counting cash or sorting invoices,'' says Nicola Hijlkema, director of MBA admissions at IESA, Spain's top business school. Some of these attitudes persist.

Until the London financial markets were deregulated last year, Ms. Hijlkema says, most British banks wouldn't even consider recruiting MBA students. Even today, she says, German companies only rarely pay higher salaries to people holding the degree. For these reasons, European MBAs remain a relative rarity. While US schools churn out some 60,000 graduates a year, Europe mints just 2,000. But attitudes are changing, and the number of business graduates is rising fast.

Europe, for instance, faces increasingly stiff worldwide competition. This economic environment has made European companies realize that management, like any other discipline, can be improved with specialized training. In addition, many Americans working in Europe boast an MBA and provide good advertising for the degree.

Europeans with MBAs either from the US or the European programs now have also begun to move into the upper ranks of management. ``Europeans finally see an MBA as something valuable,'' says Ahmet Aykac, the director of IMI's MBA program. ``They realize it is different than a general degree.''

Consider the French cosmetics company L'Or'eal. It finds that students with MBAs have a stronger international background and are easier to train than students coming straight from university. ``We need young executives who have a good grounding in the problems facing international companies,'' says Jean-Fran,cois Doyon, who heads executive recruiting for L'Or'eal.

For those looking to pick up an MBA with a European accent, there are significant differences from a home-grown degree. Most of the European programs are specifically designed to be multicultural, pulling students from more than 20 countries. Professors are also drawn from around the globe, so they teach fewer examples from American business. The students themselves tend to be older than their American counterparts. While many Americans pick up an MBA straight after college or university, IMI's average student is 30 years old and has worked for nine years.

European students often work in groups with people who have completely different experiences. One recent group at INSEAD included a Swiss civil engineer, a Belgian lawyer, and a Greek woman with an architecture degree. To accomplish anything, the students learn very quickly to work with colleagues who have very different backgrounds and abilities - the very skill they will need for a successful international career.

``No single culture dominates,'' says Jean-Pierre Salzman, the director of alumni relations at INSEAD. The curriculum itself differs little from what would be taught at Harvard or Stanford. But classes tend to be much less theoretical. Students review fewer ``case studies,'' focusing instead on negotiating workshops, computer simulations, and other skills-related classes.

Despite all the transatlantic differences in business schools, the MBA's newfound popularity in Europe is creating a new style of businessman. He operates like the American model - tougher, more aggressive than before. Financial and marketing skills are becoming more important than family background and connections.

At the same time, company loyalty is also breaking down. European executives used to spend their entire lives working for one enterprise. Now they switch jobs to boost their salaries - creating criticisms of MBAs similar to those raised in America. ``MBAs have started to pick up a reputation for being arrogant and big-headed,'' says INSEAD's Salzman. ``Many senior executives still look suspiciously at these whiz kids who show up full of suggestions but pay little heed to the company's history and culture.''

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