Size matters when it comes to your MBA

IN 2006, there were 299 people on London Business School’s full-time MBA course. In 2010, the intake was 401, bringing the total number of students on the two-year course to around 800. The 2010 intake at Paris’s INSEAD is 980. At the upper end, the number of people at the large MBA schools is increasing every year, partly because a downturn is a good time to boost your employability, and partly because of the MBA’s increasing importance.

But at the other end of the business school spectrum, things are different. At EMLYON in the south of France, there are just 30 new students in 2010. At Vlerick Leuven Gent in Belgium, 50. Some dismiss larger schools as “factories”, but then again, others suspect that smaller schools are second-rate. Taking an MBA is a massive life-choice, so should you go large, or stay small?

At INSEAD, of course, they dwell on the up-side of being big. The largest schools are the most famous, they say, and attract the best students. In terms of networking, more students means more potential contacts who can help your career. The network of alumni, too, is bigger. There are over 30 countries which have 100 or more INSEAD MBA graduates. There is also a question of brand: everybody has heard of the big business schools, and rightly or wrongly, the fact is that recognisable names just look more impressive on a CV.

But there are benefits at the other end of the spectrum too. Joe Li Puma, of EMLYON points out that while his school’s numbers might be small, this year 13 countries are represented, including students from Oman, China, Peru and Ukraine. Students have worked in the oil industry, real estate, architecture and another specialised in high-end chocolate. Also, smaller classes means you really get to know those people. And while EMLYON doesn’t have the reach of Harvard, it does have 19,000 alumni in 50 countries. Small schools can sometimes reach the places larger ones can’t too: “When you have 30 people you can go into Nokia’s HQ, as we did last year. You can’t do that with 1,000,” says Li Puma.

But are small schools less good? Christophe Coutat, General Director of Access MBA, which helps students pick MBA schools, says that there’s no difference in the quality of the teaching or the quality of the other students. After all, teachers tend to move around between schools. Students too, are just as good at the 100th ranked as the first

For those who are certain that they want to work in a specific sector or geographical region, a smaller MBA that concentrates on that is probably best for them – for example Bordeaux if you are interested in wine, or Vlerick Gent if you want to work in Belgium or Russia (with which it has close links). As for brand, that only matters to you if you go into consultancy.

Size, Coutat says, should be low down on your list of priorities. Only if you are choosing between two schools that match your ambitions should you think about size. And then, he says, “It’s really about feeling – do you want to be part of something big, or do you want the personal contact? It’s a question of personality.”