In the Graduate Management Admission Council’s (GMAC) 2016 application trends survey, released at the end of September, European business schools saw a boost in applications to all their graduate programmes after years of stagnation.
Nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of schools reported rises in application volumes, representing a 23 percentage point increase since 2014.
In comparison, only 46 per cent in the US reported hikes. Additionally, the US registered a drop in its full-time, two-year MBA applications – long regarded as the flagship programme in the business education world.
Another sign that Europe might be giving US business schools a run for their money came through France-based Insead’s toppling of Harvard Business School from the summit of the Financial Times’ MBA rankings earlier this year.
So does the influx of applications to European business schools represent a shift in supremacy?
Robert Dammon, dean of the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, said that if the demand for MBAs continued to flatten, some US schools would “struggle”.
“I think it’s no longer the case you can teach just business fundamentals. It is important to differentiate yourself, to be known for something,” he told Times Higher Education.
“Those that cannot get outside the old mould we’ve been in for 60 years, of just teaching business, are the schools that will struggle. They need to do much more than that. It’ll be hard for them.”
Mark Smith, dean of faculty at Grenoble School of Management – which has seen an increase in applications across the board – said that GMAC’s figures were a reflection of European schools’ “agility and the state of competition in the European market”.
“Many European schools are not based in universities, and can thus respond to the needs of business and students more quickly,” he said.
“The agility and innovation that European schools have remains a competitive edge. When working with American partner schools, we have sometimes been surprised by the layers of decision-makers we need to pass through compared with what we have here. While the US market is often portrayed as dynamic, when it comes to universities there are delays and also a lack of continuity with deans changing strategic direction.”
Marion Debruyne, dean of the Vlerick Business School of Ghent University and KU Leuven, said that she believed European schools were succeeding by offering shorter programmes than their US counterparts and by tailoring courses to meet business needs, employing, for example, “action learning”, or real-life problem-solving.
“With increasing pressure on the return on investment of an MBA, applicants often prefer a one-year programme, so they can take less time out of their career and reduce the opportunity cost. This challenges the traditional two-year US MBA model,” she said.
“Second, students increasingly look for programmes that are closely attuned with what is happening in business, and where action learning is a reality and not a dream, captured in innovative learning formats.”
Professor Debruyne also pointed out that Europe offers the “cultural diversity” that many business applicants are looking for.
“Europe is a patchwork of countries, and an open economy by necessity,” she added. “This is reflected in the student body. At Vlerick, we have 20 different nationalities in one MBA classroom, making for a rich intercultural experience.”
Simon Mercado, director of ESCP Europe Business School’s London branch, agreed. “Interdisciplinarity, cross-culturalism, international mobility and action learning” are the defining features of the best European schools, he noted.
“While Europe can in no sense claim a monopoly on these attributes and emphases, they are reflective of a European business school landscape that is qualitatively different,” he said.
Professor Smith said that US schools “still have an advantage in terms of resources, particularly the top schools with huge endowments, but the simple US-European division is no longer valid”.
“I think US schools will feel the pressure from Europe and Asia,” he added.
Professor Dammon, despite seeing the largest number of applications to Tepper’s MBA programme last year, noted that “students are always going to go to where they think they can get the best education and value for their dollars”.
“That value proposition is changing, and the schools that can make the transition from the traditional MBA programme to getting students an education that is much more encompassing of what the entire university has to offer will win out, whether they’re in the US, Europe or Asia,” he said.