An MBA is the gateway to the international marketplace

Timothy Barber
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AN Australian-born executive based in London and married to a South African banker, Nick Kontopoulos could be seen as the very essence of today’s globe-trotting business internationalist. However it wasn’t until his MBA studies led him to China that he thought that he might end up living and working there. Kontopoulos, a marketing business developer for SAP, the management software producer, undertook an executive MBA at London’s Cass Business School in 2008, which included a two week “symposium” visit to Shanghai and Beijing.

“We were listening to local entrepreneurs, bankers, and people who had gone out there from elsewhere in the world and set up businesses,” says Kontopoulos, who liked what he saw. When an opportunity came up to apply his skills in a global direction at SAP, he knew where he wanted to go. “I hadn’t thought of China in particular before going there with the MBA, but it broadened my view. I like going somewhere I can make some changes and bring value, and they’re hungry for that there. But I’ll also be learning from them, seeing what Western perspectives don’t work there.”

Kontopoulos’s experience is just one example of the international benefits MBA study can bring. The opportunity to exchange knowledge with classmates from all over the world, and to pick up crucial experience of other destinations and business cultures, has become arguably the MBA model’s strongest selling point, and something schools are looking to capitalise on more and more.

As well as actively recruiting students from every part of the globe, most schools now offer the opportunity to travel to international destinations for learning modules or project work as part of their MBA programmes. Some schools have alliances and joint ventures with schools in different locations, enabling students to spend time on exchanges.

An increasing number of schools are opening facilities and even whole campuses overseas, particularly in Asia and the Middle East. Europe’s INSEAD business school runs a campus in Singapore, while the University of Nottingham has one in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for instance. Other schools take an even more diverse global approach, with North Carolina’s Duke Fuqua School enabling students on its Cross Continent programme to study in the US, St Petersburg, London, Shanghai, Dubai and New Delhi in 16 months flat, and Hult International Business School, originally based just in Boston, now running campuses in London, Dubai and Shanghai, with another planned for San Francisco.

For business schools, there are clear opportunities in establishing a presence in the world’s emerging markets. “Places like India and China have a serious shortfall of managerial talent as their economies accelerate,” says Ross Gerraghty, editor of MBA guide website Though emerging economies send many students to schools in the West, MBA facilities close to home lessen the cost burden and possible visa complications. There’s also a cost incentive for those from developed countries. “The MBA you get at INSEAD in Singapore has the same accreditation as that in Paris but it’s half the price to live there, and you get exposure to the fastest growing markets,” says Gerraghty.

At Hult, students spend six months at a “home” campus, before spending eight weeks on a rotation to one of the school’s other locations, after which they can either return or rotate onwards to a third campus. Fernando Mora, the school’s head of recruitment, says that this gives graduates a major advantage.

“Getting to know different settings and being able to continue working seamlessly is one of the main things employers look for now. It can be shocking to be working suddenly in a different environment with different rules, etiquette and working cultures. It’s about turning the tables on your comfort zone, and this is a major part of modern global business.”

While Hult’s lead campus is in Boston, only a small proportion of its students are from the US – the school’s highest proportion of students is from Asia. In the recession, Mora says it’s the students from developing countries whose experiences have had particular resonance.

“When the crisis happened, those from normally stable economies sat up and listened to what people from somewhere like Brazil had to say about conducting business in a constantly unstable environment. Managing enterprise amidst uncertainty is something they have faced time and again, and still become successful.”

But with so many of them ramping up their international offerings, is there a risk that some business schools merely take on the role of business-orientated tourist operators, offering travel to interesting destinations without providing real engagement? Chris Jeffery of Cass Business School says that there are some schools that let the side down, for instance by having students visit a destination, only for them to be taught by a professor who flies out with them, rather than by those based locally. But his is lessening – after all, schools are reliant upon their reputations, and for that they need to live up to the opportunities they promise.

“Business schools are learning that there’s no point in just travelling the world and seeming like a tourist agency – you have to be able to justify why you do things. The value must always be in the learning, the growth of understanding – without that there’s no point.”

France-based business school INSEAD opened its Singapore campus in 2000, and has now opened a third branch in Abu Dhabi. MBA students can also spend time at Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

The University of Nottingham has campuses in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and in Ningbo, China, where students can take all or part of their MBA.

Toronto’s Schulich School of Business runs a joint MBA programme, the Schulich India MBA programme, with the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai. www.schulich.yorku.can.

Hult Business School is officially based in Boston, but has campuses in London, Dubai, Shanghai and soon San Francisco. Students spend time at least two campuses during their MBA.

At North Carolina’s Fuqua School of Business students can attend affiliated business schools in London, UAE, India, Russia and China, all in 16 months.

Harvard Business School is opening its first overseas facility, in Shanghai. The school’s Immersion Experience Programme enables students to visit countries including Rwanda, Peru, India and Vietnam.