Big European business schools can carve out a distinctive offer to help them attract more students on the world stage as their American counterparts fight culture wars and a jobs downturn, according to the deputy dean of one of the continent’s highest-ranked institutions.
Marc Badia, who oversees the MBA and master’s in management programmes for Spain’s IESE Business School, said that while the US might continue to be the destination of choice for students who want to work there, Europe was increasingly proving to be a better location for those who wanted to find jobs in the rest of the world.
He said the diversity of Europe’s schools – IESE currently has people of 60 different nationalities enrolled on its MBA – mirrored what students would find in the offices of top businesses, particularly in regions such as the Middle East, an increasingly popular option for graduates.
Anecdotally, Professor Badia said IESE – which is enjoying a bumper recruitment year despite a trend of declining enrolments across the sector more generally – was starting to hear from candidates that were choosing it over American schools because of the presidential election, which might return Donald Trump to the White House.
In a febrile atmosphere ahead of the vote in November, many institutions – including those home to what are traditionally regarded as some of the world’s best business schools – have come under attack from right-wing politicians, particularly over their commitment to equality and diversity.
This polarisation, covered by media across the globe, has been weighing on the minds of applicants, according to Professor Badia, and, while he admitted that American thinking often influenced institutions worldwide, he said he felt European schools should resist going down a similar path.
“We do come under pressure sometimes from students who have perhaps been educated in America in this approach to diversity and inclusion and want to export it here.
“I say I understand your concerns and I am also interested in many things to do with social justice, but we maybe have a different style.
“We are a European campus, and we have a different culture. To start with, I am not going to label everyone and put everyone into groups. We are going to organise things together.”
He said IESE was “trying to keep politics out of campus” in the sense that he didn’t want to encourage students organising in clubs based around particular identities.
“We don’t regulate things like micro-aggressions, safe spaces or trigger warnings. I say, ‘Look, these things can happen, and someone could get offended’, especially when we are debating issues with so many nationalities present.
“But I would rather have these things happen and have a conversation about why it offended someone, without the necessity for someone ruling over this from the administration of the school.
“Of course, there is a very clear policy on harassment, but all these other things that are about different points of view, opinions…I think you have to teach people how to solve these things by having a normal conversation rather than having to appeal to some sort of committee that will decide.”
Professor Badia said the view from Spain was that the US favoured a more “rules-based mindset” with stricter guidelines for what should and should not be said, but Europe had a different approach.
“I’m not saying which is better or worse, but for us it works better this way, and this is what we are offering to students,” he added.
IESE’s approach involved more of a focus on teaching students “the ability to deal with people and understand them”, according to Professor Badia. He said he was introducing more humanities-focused courses looking at areas such as understanding human psychology and the history of financial institutions.
This, he said, would also equip students to deal with the other great current challenge for businesses: how to deal with disruption caused by the emergence of artificial intelligence, which, he said, was still essentially a managerial issue about how to help people adapt to change.
MBA graduates are already experiencing a disrupted job market. Recent reporting in The Wall Street Journal highlighted how the 2023 intake was being affected by hiring downturns in the consulting, technology and finance industries, with 20 per cent of Harvard Business School MBA graduates still seeking jobs three months after finishing, compared with 8 per cent in 2021.
Professor Badia said that here, again, European schools could differentiate themselves. At IESE – despite European firms experiencing similar difficulties – the jobs placement rate within three months was still 94 per cent, primarily because its career service was able to secure graduates roles all over the world.
This divergence from the US is such that IESE is considering the future of its New York campus, he said.
“It is a strategic place to be, but we are figuring out right now what we do next, to be honest,” Professor Badia added.
“We break even there – it is not like we are losing money – and it helps us as a hub. But we want to do something that makes sense, is niche and fits with our identity as a school.”