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How can business schools remain globally competitive?

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This article was first published by University World News.

How can leading business schools maintain a competitive edge in the face of decreasing post-study work opportunities, weakening brands and increasing online and transnational alternatives? What are schools’ major concerns? What are the trends in student mobility? How are the top business schools adapting their strategies to compete in the market? How can business schools become ‘future proof’?

These were some of the questions addressed in a webinar by a panel comprising Nadine Burquel, director of business school services, EFMD (the European Foundation for Management Development); Thomas Froelicher, director general and dean, Rennes School of Business, France; and Angus Laing, dean, Lancaster University Management School, United Kingdom; and hosted by Rahul Choudaha, Studyportal’s executive vice president of global engagement and research.

The webinar was hosted by Studyportals in partnership with
EFMD and University World News on 21 February. To access a video recording of the webinar, click here.

Kicking off the discussion, Choudaha pointed out that in the UK one-third of all enrolled business school students are from overseas, making schools highly dependent on them. “International students are critical,” he said.

In his opening remarks he argued that there are four main types of global engagement strategy for higher education and the institutions that employ them can be characterised as defenders, innovators, adaptors and challengers.

Rahul Choudaha and Edwin van Rest (2018) Megatrends shaping the future of higher education bit.ly/Megatrends2030

The defenders are traditional recruiters of international students in English-speaking destinations. The innovators are continually looking for new ways of offering shorter credentials and adopting lifelong learning models, while the adaptors are taking programmes to students by exploiting the growth in online blended learning and transnational education.

The challengers, on the other hand, are located in continental Europe, China and Southeast Asia, and are distinguished by their growing ambition of offering world-class universities.

“This can be a useful framework in which to assess how business schools approach internationalisation,” he said.

“Business schools are under pressure to offer better value for money and greater flexibility,” he continued. In the United States 25% of programmes are now online, compared to just 2% in France and the Netherlands. However, although around a quarter of the US courses cost more than €20,000 (US$22,700) per year, the programmes in the latter countries are much more affordable.

The result is that students have much more choice and consequently are looking for much more “career advancement” and return for their investment.

Choudaha then turned to the panel and asked: “What are the biggest concerns you are facing?”

Burquel immediately focused on quality. She argued that only quality will future-proof programmes, and for that reason EFMD has developed 12 key dimensions to assess it. These include categories such as learning resources, student support and the international office.

A second concern identified by Burquel was capacity. She cited UNESCO data that showed that the five million students who are currently ‘mobile’ are set to increase by 25% in the next few years; so business schools need to balance increasing capacity while maintaining quality.

Froelicher of Rennes School of Business, on the other hand, pointed to his school’s long history of internationalisation in attracting students. “Every day we have at least 70 nationalities on campus and we seek to draw on this capacity to aid our teaching,” he said.

That level of diversity is critical, he argued, as students who are seeking a career at international level do not want a class overloaded with students from one particular country. There must be “less than 20% of students from any one country in any particular classroom,” he said.

Laing pointed out that more than one-third of students at Lancaster University are international and that figure includes a significant number who are undergraduates. “We have campuses in Malaysia, Ghana, China and Germany,” he said, “and we push students to be mobile.”

Strategic priorities

At this point Choudaha held another poll, asking “What are the strategic priorities for internationalisation at business schools?” Participants responded that the “desire to increase the number of international enrolments” was the priority (at 39%); followed by the aim “to expand international partnerships” (31%). “Launching new programmes” was only chosen by 3%; while “Other” encompassed the rest.

In the context of this poll, Laing pointed out that the UK “has particular issues” because of Brexit, partly because students are worried about practical aspects such as visas, and partly because of the perception that Britain is no longer going to be seen as an open country in which to study.

Froelicher agreed that Brexit was affecting intake, particularly from India, where students had fears about obtaining visas and later finding a ‘nice position’ in a company. “You have to rethink your organisation,” he said. “That is why we have developed a Global Business Unit that specialises in welcoming students, managing the programmes and working with alumni,” he said.

“We have also established a Global Experience Team,” added Laing.

“It is good to see your two institutions being proactive and reaching out to students,” summarised Choudaha.

Burquel shifted the focus to China’s growth by stating that “China aims to bring half a million international students into the country by 2020 and that target is backed up by a political and economic strategy, so we must stay awake to this.”

She argued that everything in China moves very fast and that capacity will be there sooner than we think. “It is both important and quite frightening in a way,” she said.

Froelicher agreed: “For me it is a chance to see if Chinese students want to stay in Europe,” he said, while Laing argued that “it is important that we don’t go in with a Western-dominant view”.

Turning to MBAs, Laing explained that demand now lies in more specific programmes such as those focusing on management, finance and marketing. Burquel agreed, arguing that MBAs are suffering because of the shift in demand towards specialised masters programmes: “MBAs need to review their offer,” she said.

Froelicher, on the other hand, pointed out that he is keen on growing the undergraduate intake at his institution.

“It is incredible that 18-year-olds are looking for international experience and are prepared to leave their home countries; that represents an opportunity for us,” he said.

Changing approaches

“How is your approach to the market changing?” Choudaha asked the panel.

“Whenever we use the word ‘digital’ in our conference titles, we always have more interest,” said Burquel, in order to highlight the growing importance of online programmes.

Laing, on the other hand, argued that the different regulatory regimes in various countries represented a particular challenge. Another issue was the need to develop the confidence of academics to do online courses: “We need to develop their skills beforehand,” he contended.

Froelicher focused on the need to make semesters abroad compulsory for students and to work with a limited set of partners to find innovative ways of doing things.

“It is important to focus on areas of excellence,” he said. “We have made the choice to focus on artificial intelligence or the green supply chain, for example, and so we bring together professors and researchers in those areas. On the other hand, immersive technology is important as the possibility now exists to invite professors to lecture without them having to travel.”

The webinar then invited questions from the audience.

“Do accreditation agencies help or hinder internationalisation processes?” one participant asked. Burquel responded that institutions are often blamed for standardising but “we seek to promote diversity”. Laing argued that “there is more fear than substance around this issue; it is important to organise around quality”.

In response to a question about enhancing the diversity of the student body, Froelicher contended that the priority was to select the best talent. “You have to look for a certain number of students country by country,” he said. “You have to be strong and clear that that is an investment.”

However that investment does not finish when the students are in the classroom, Froelicher continued. “You need to go into your cafeteria and if the French, Chinese and African students are there sitting in their own groups, then you are not doing your job. The induction programme and the period before students even arrive on campus is important,” he said.

“If you had one piece of advice for institutions, what would it be?” Choudaha enquired.

You need to make internationalisation core to your business and ensure that is absorbed by all your colleagues and students,” responded Laing. “Look upon your progress as a learning journey and build internationalisation into your school in every minute,” said Froelicher. “Be true to yourself and take inspiration from all over the world,” concluded Burquel, “there is no time for complacency.”

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