CEMS: business education with ‘a feel of the United Nations’

The international aspects of the master’s at a worldwide alliance of business schools will produce ‘global citizens’ for a ‘volatile’ world, hopes its head, Roland Siegers

January 16, 2016
Master's degree students holding university name paddles
Source: Miquel Coll Molas
Where do you want to go? The CEMS master’s requires study abroad for a “full-scale cultural and linguistic immersion”

“I don’t want us to be the odd one out. People just don’t know about us because they cannot believe it really exists. It’s like, the bumblebee shouldn’t fly, but it does.”

It takes a bold person to compare his organisation to a fragile quirk of nature. But for Roland Siegers, executive director of the Global Alliance in Management Education (CEMS), grandiose statements about redefining business education are not part of his mission. He’s an advocate of plurality.

“I consider myself to be a liberal, and it’s about what’s good for [the student],” he said. “I would like to have the offer [of choice]. And if I have the transparency of the quality of [each] choice, it’s better. So I’d like there to be no standard model any more.”

CEMS is a 30-member collective of international business schools, multinational companies and non-governmental organisations that together offer a bespoke master’s in international management (MiM). The course is delivered by the academic partners with common curricular content among all member schools.

A signature part of the degree is its requirement that students spend their second term abroad at another school for “full-scale cultural and linguistic immersion”. It is the international aspect, Mr Siegers believes, that sets CEMS apart from other models of business education courses.

“We don’t have a centre, a cultural or ideological home,” he said. “In CEMS, we just come from everywhere around the world, and no one’s dominant. I think those who come into studies now really appreciate that ‘United Nations’ sort of feeling.”

The course content does not “reinvent the wheel”, he said, but the “diversity in the classroom…a hands-on, practical experience and a focus on ethical leadership and the future” offer “a pretty well-rounded experience” for students.

On one level, it appears to be successful. The CEMS MiM placed fourth in the Financial Times’ Masters in Management 2015 ranking. One of CEMS’ main draws is an education that prepares its students to tackle what Mr Siegers calls the “VUCA world” – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous – of today.

“Business schools and business education have been very utilitarian: you get the skills to get the job, to get rich. [But] the old models of ‘let’s all just become rich and happy’ just don’t work any more,” he said. “Add to that climate change, pollution – even just to be successful in business means you need to understand those challenges.

“The students are leading the way [saying]: ‘We don’t want to be taught that old stuff that hasn’t worked. Change the stuff that you’re teaching to us.’”

In addition to time spent abroad, students have to do an international internship lasting at least 10 weeks. It is through this heavily international programme that CEMS hopes to create graduates who promote “global citizenship”.

Mr Siegers said that it was valuable and important that students were demanding more of their learning experience because that pressure means that “academia is finally remembering what knowledge and education used to be about”.

“That’s about forming yourself as a responsible citizen and a responsible individual,” he said. “When we were founded back in ’88, we were still in the Cold War. The idea was [to return] to the Middle Ages [concept that] knowledge was borderless. Everything was in Latin or everything was in French, and you can only learn when you travel.”

“[People travelled] to other scholars to learn from them, [to] get inspired; and then we had all the nation states concepts coming in, and we siloed ourselves off. We’re transcending that.”

He noted that there remains a certain amount of tribalism in higher education, but said the value of the knowledge economy was helping to break this down.

“The thing about HE is it’s very strictly related to law-making and the regulatory environment of every single state,” he said. “Some systems are more parochial than others. It depends on size. Sometimes the US just doesn’t seem to care about the world out there.

“If you’re in Switzerland or the Netherlands, you have to be international otherwise there’s no one you can compete against. I do think the [countries] that are small and have had to internationalise will have a head start and an advantage. I say this as a German, from a big country, that’s lagging behind in business education.” 

Mr Siegers said that he would like to see a CEMS model being used in other fields such as political science, engineering or even history. But he does not believe that the model would fit for all business schools, and there is still “room for [other] specialisation”.

“It’s not set up to push [other courses] sideways; it’s going to change the market and make it richer, more complementary,” he said.


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