The language of competition

Continental business schools are spearheading the attempt to access the lucrative market for higher education in English. Matthew Reisz reports

January 22, 2009

In 2007, Ohad Harnoy moved to Sweden, at the suggestion of a girlfriend, to pursue a ten-month masters in entrepreneurship at Lund University. He is now following it up with a masters in management research. Both are taught in English, largely by Swedes, but with occasional guest lecturers from elsewhere.

Harnoy was particularly attracted by Lund's pioneering course in entrepreneurship, which is based on an American model combining academic work with real-life experience. But even if there had been an exact British equivalent, Lund offered some obvious advantages: there are no tuition fees, and rent is about half what it would be in the UK while food is roughly the same price.

For these reasons, students come from far and wide. Harnoy is Israeli. The 23 contemporaries who completed the course included five Scandinavians, four other Europeans, three Latin Americans, an Australian and ten Asians (four Thais, three Chinese, one Pakistani, one Kazakhstani and one South Korean).

Most stayed on in Sweden, either for further study or, if they had acquired enough basic Swedish, to work in companies or as entrepreneurs. Along with more personal factors, many liked the sound of welfare provisions far superior to those they were used to in their own countries.

It sounds like a win-win scenario. The budding entrepreneurs received high-quality training in a pleasant environment at minimal cost. The university scooped up students that any institution would love to have. Not only are they bright and eager; they also have a direct impact on the university's bottom line.

Even though it provided consultancy support, Lund calculated that if the course engendered a single solid business, that alone would repay the investment from the Swedish Government. In fact, ten businesses were created and four of them are still trading. The Swedish economy, meanwhile, benefited from the extra activity.

This would be a story with a happy ending for everybody if not for the obvious losers: the British universities that would like to attract just that tranche of students.

As long as a Colombian or a Chinese student has to learn Swedish before taking up a place at Lund, application levels are likely to remain very low. But when its courses are offered in English, Britain loses what is perhaps its unique selling point. And, provided that the contents and the cost are right, it is not difficult to see why someone might choose Segovia rather than Sheffield or Grenoble instead of Glasgow.

The bridgehead often comes, as is well known, from business schools offering "Anglo-Saxon" qualifications such as MBAs. Many have what amounts to a pyramidal range of English-language provision, with limited undergraduate options but far more choices at masters, executive masters and PhD level. An example is SDA Bocconi, the management school that forms part of the private Bocconi University in Milan. One of the first Italian universities to grant degrees in economics, it now ranks among the world's leading business schools.

It offers a single bachelors degree one can take in English (in international economics, management and finance), but a much broader range of more specialised masters in areas such as international healthcare management, fashion and design management, and fine food and beverages.

Something similar applies at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business (GGSB), the international business school within Grenoble Ecole de Management. Undergraduate programmes, unsurprisingly, are fairly limited. Currently, 106 students are pursuing a bachelors in international business, 77 attend its summer school and about 50 are expected at its new winter school.

Far more significant are its masters in international business (299 students), full- and part-time MBAs (167) and doctorate in business administration (204). All are taught in English.

In addition, the GGSB delivers programmes in Georgia, Russia and Moldova (mainly part-time MBAs with a specialisation in global management), as well as in London and Singapore. There are students of 55 nationalities - from Slovenia to Senegal by way of South Korea - even on its Grenoble campus, while offices are actively recruiting in London, New Delhi, Beijing, Shanghai, Mexico City, New York and Beirut.

For Thierry Grange, dean of the Grenoble Ecole de Management, the case for teaching in English is unanswerable. "Our mission as a professional school is to provide international competencies to companies to back up their international development."

He says his institution's clientele is made up of French students and professionals from the rest of the world seeking to further their careers. "To recruit, train and teach people in Grenoble and on our off-site campuses, we need to use the international language of English."

For a number of reasons, argues Grange, it has been harder for state universities in France to embrace these changes. He cites, for example, "a strong defence of the French language 'against' the imperialism of the British language", "the lack of English-speaking faculty" and "their focus on the recruitment of national companies that did not demand international competencies".

Yet, he adds, "French universities are (now) offering about 300 English-speaking programmes in all domains, although French business schools still have a ten-year lead in teaching in English in France and abroad".

So how would Grange define the appeal of Grenoble to international students? "We offer programmes taught in English that limit the perceived academic risk for non-French-speaking students and, in parallel to their curriculum, they discover more about a really exotic culture and they learn another nice language - French."

He adds: "The 16th-century Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, is reported to have explained the secret of his powerful reign over countries that spoke different languages by saying: 'I speak Spanish to my soldiers, German to my horses and French to my mistresses.'?"

Because it has a site in London and half its teaching staff are anglophone (only 20 per cent are native French speakers), the GGSB offers plenty of opportunities for British academics who are willing and able to live in two places or commute. To British business schools, on the other hand, it may offer opportunities for collaborative projects, but it also represents the kind of competition that is likely only to intensify.

And what about the situation over the border in Switzerland? According to Lutz-Peter Berg, science and technology attache at the Swiss Embassy in London, his country has been aiming to attract foreign students for some time, but only to achieve a "brain gain" rather than as a source of income for universities.

"Higher education in Switzerland is publicly funded and fees are extremely low for both domestic and foreign students. Almost all universities have fees of about £500 to £1,000. In the few cases where there are increased fees for foreigners, these are usually a small administrative surcharge of about £150," Berg says.

Institutions that must charge market rates will always be at a disadvantage when competitors offer heavily subsidised courses for political reasons, such as boosting national intellectual capital. Furthermore, Switzerland's global perspective has almost inevitably led to English-language teaching.

At 23 per cent, Berg says Switzerland already has one of the highest proportions of foreign students in the world. "The figures for PhD students and academic staff are even higher, so the university environment is truly international. Currently, the majority of foreign students come from neighbouring countries, which means they are able to study in one of (Switzerland's) main three national languages - German, French and, less frequently, Italian.

"However, Swiss universities are making great strides to attract non-European students (as well) by providing courses that are taught in English. These are generally at masters level, and to date almost 200 MSc courses that are taught entirely or at least predominantly in English are offered by 11 of the 12 public universities," he says.

Most come under the broad umbrellas of business and management or the sciences, although options also include subject areas such as mediation, sports administration, English linguistics and children's rights. Students can choose anywhere from Basel and Bern to Zurich, and opt for anything from an MSc in actuarial science at the University of Lausanne to an MA in international tourism or intelligent systems at the University of Lugano. Similar programmes are also available for PhDs.

None of these examples, of course, comes close to the scenario where a foreign university offers a range of English-language undergraduate courses similar to the spectrum available in a British university. But even here there are interesting straws in the wind.

It is not unusual for universities to create business schools. But the IE Business School in Madrid, founded in 1973, decided to reverse the trend and set up its own university. And since the licensing process in Spain can take up to 15 years, the easiest approach was to buy Universidad SEK, an existing higher education institution, and transform it into something new.

The IE University, which was officially launched under that name in August 2008, is housed in the 13th-century Convent of Santa Cruz la Real in Segovia. The business school has already proved highly successful, and one of the university's declared aims is to transfer its "educational model into the sphere of graduate and postgraduate education".

Every degree will include a module in management, and new bachelors courses cover everything from architecture, biology and communication to law, psychology and tourism management.

In the ambitious words of the rector, Santiago Iniguez de Onzono, speaking last April: "The university we are building will be one of Europe's most prestigious centres of learning within ten years, in line with the achievements of our business school."

Slightly more surprising, perhaps, de Onzono specifically flagged up the humanities, alongside internationalism and entrepreneurship, as crucial to the university.

Such subjects, he said, are "the binding agent that integrates other knowledge and the base for shaping individuals in the fullest sense of the word".

We can only wait and see what it means in practice to incorporate art, philosophy and music into IE's "innovative, market-oriented programmes", although an interesting sign is that one of its many British partnerships is with the Globe Theatre in London - using actors as part of the university's technique for teaching communications skills to managers.

IE University is very consciously targeting an elite international market: it has a staff-to-student ratio of one to eight and charges "Ivy League" prices to Spanish and foreign students alike, although many American-style scholarships are available.

There are already 95 nationalities on campus, roughly the same number as at INSEAD and the London Business School, and the declared aim is to achieve a proportion of 80 per cent international students.

IE is also committed to achieving a good gender balance through providing scholarships for women executives, researching initiatives such as mentoring programmes and a strong stress on online education, which is often far easier to integrate with childcare.

In addition, IE is developing a programme for women in their late thirties or early forties who are hoping to re-enter the workforce at a more senior level.

It is IE's international focus that is probably most relevant to British academics and universities.

This incorporates a number of different aspects. IE will be adopting a broadly "Anglo-Saxon" system of qualifications (referring to LLMs, for example, rather than masters in law), which the Bologna Process and other pressures are turning into the gold standard across the European higher education space and indeed the world.

Its programmes will incorporate language courses in Spanish (for many a good deal easier to pick up than Chinese or Arabic), even though a second language will not be officially required for graduation. And it will build on longstanding links with Latin America as well as giving students access to the network of 35,000 alumni from the business school.

English-language universities on European soil can and should pose a challenge to the intellectual dominance of the US. The overwhelming majority of business case studies are based on American corporations (and what we think we know about China is largely the result of American research).

To plug this gap and create a wider variety of perspectives is part of the task that British and continental universities should be competing to achieve. It is certainly an agenda the IE has taken on board.

As with the GGBS, the IE University aims to create many collaborative projects with British institutions and job opportunities for those who can commute between Britain and Madrid or nearby Segovia. The big question, however, is whether it will also snap up many of the best students British universities need to survive.

In the words of its rector, IE sets out to be "a private institution with a public mission: that of educating global citizens with an entrepreneurial mindset who are committed to society and have an excellent working knowledge of their fields".

It is a sign of these jumpy times that few would dare predict whether this is just high-flown marketing speak or a realistic ambition. But British universities would be well advised to take note.


The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, generally known as ETH Zurich, is one of the world's leading universities. It offers 38 masters programmes, 26 of which are taught entirely in English, introduced over a three-year period, most of them in 2006.

Subjects cover the full range of science and technology from applied geophysics, biomedical engineering and chemistry to pharmaceutical sciences and statistics. There are 2,150 students on English-only programmes.

In the short term, the result is rather paradoxical. The bulk of the faculty is German-speaking, although, explains spokesman Anders Hagstrom, "the overwhelming majority have spent extended periods abroad.

"A postdoctoral period in North America is still almost a must for an academic career."

Meanwhile, 68 per cent of the students on the anglophone courses are Swiss, and many of the others come from neighbouring Germany and Austria.

This may occasionally mean that a native German professor ends up teaching a class of German-speaking students in English, but in the longer term it will facilitate plans for further expansion across Europe and into the crucial markets of China, India and Turkey.

"Our most active recruitment activities are in China," says Hagstrom, through "participation in student fairs, a representative at Swissnex (a network of science and technology outposts run by the Swiss State Secretariat for Education and Research) in Shanghai, etc. A Swissnex is also being established in Bangalore, India, so we will increase our activities there (too)."

Sarah Springman, full professor of geotechnical engineering since 1997, agrees. Every day, she says, she gets "about five emails from China, India or Iran" from potential students. With fees low, "the biggest challenge for MAs is living costs, although some stipends have been raised from business to help support them."

Despite a happy early career at Cambridge, Springman well remembers her first impressions of ETH Zurich. "I walked around with my chin on the pavement, amazed at the facilities, while at Cambridge we still had Portakabins to fit everybody in."

Her subsequent experience has been just as happy. "You have total flexibility to do what you want in research - it's almost a perfect situation," she says. "You have a much better chance of getting a good research proposal funded because there is enough money to go around."

Many of these advantages feed down to those wondering where they should go to embark on masters and PhDs.

"Students would be unimaginative and rather stupid not to consider what ETH has to offer," Springman says.


Patrick O'Sullivan spent 25 years at Cardiff University as a lecturer and latterly as MBA programme director before taking up his current role as director of studies at Grenoble Graduate School of Business (GGSB) in 2006. He now has one of the heaviest teaching loads in the school, since he is responsible for the generic subjects - economics and business ethics - which form part of every programme. These are taught in three-hour sessions (with the central hour highly interactive) to groups of 25-40 people.

In Wales, O'Sullivan's undergraduates were almost entirely native English speakers and even the masters students were around 70 per cent anglophone. In France, by contrast, he estimates that about 60 per cent of his students don't have English as a first language. This makes him ideally suited to comment on the gains and losses of moving out of the British system and into an environment where the staff and client base is far more international.

Despite the occasional cultural reference that is greeted with bafflement, language itself has not proved a problem. "The admissions criteria are quite tough," O'Sullivan explains, "so I haven't had to tailor my presentations to a different level of linguistic ability."

But comprehension and spoken fluency do not always translate on to the page. "International students can be weaker when they write essays and a greater proportion of them struggle. Their conception of what an essay is can be different, so there is a cultural challenge in explaining what we want. We address this in a course on academic writing at the beginning of the year.

"Critical thinking and expressing their own ideas can be foreign to students from certain countries. The Chinese, for example, have a tradition of respect for professors and don't question us. But thinking critically is part of what is expected in a masters.

"So we have to be sensitive in how we assess and encourage students. The assessment standards are the same, but giving feedback on such assessments can be different - some students need more encouragement and guidance."

Despite such challenges, O'Sullivan feels stimulated by "the many different perspectives and arguments" one gets in an environment where 30-40 per cent of the teaching staff are English, another 30-40 per cent are French and the rest come from a range of other countries. And, even comparing only the masters students with those he is used to in the UK, he is impressed by standards at Grenoble. "Students are better motivated, more hungry for knowledge, better prepared for classes - they actually do their homework." All of which, of course, makes them attractive to universities competing for them.

Grenoble's food, drink and scenery are obviously rather different from Cardiff's. But terms and conditions are similar and, since "academics are always underpaid", the common room gripes are also similar. French systems of administration tend to combine precision with rigidity, and a fairly bureaucratic environment means, in O'Sullivan's experience, that workloads are "surprisingly high - there's a step up in workload, particularly if you're involved in administration". And the atmosphere is slightly more hierarchical - though at Grenoble, perhaps unusually for a French workplace, the dean and academic staff are all on first-name terms.

Finally, despite English-language teaching and an international cadre of staff, the fact remains that the GGSB is located in France.

Even at work, O'Sullivan reckons, "30 per cent of daily interaction is in French", including important tasks such as chasing up the accounts department for payments.

British academics who make a break for foreign climes may find it a richly rewarding experience, but only if they are willing to make the effort they require of many students: learning a foreign language.

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