MBA programs: a French view vs. another French view

Posted on 07/07/2011

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In a recent article in the Financial Times (http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/4880b9a8-a408-11e0-8b4f-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1RQbLRiPa), a very cliché view of the French “Grandes Ecoles” ( and particularly Business Schools) is presented. As it was not written by a English academic à la David Lodge but by a vice-Dean of a well-known French business school, it is even more interesting.

The author argues that:

. French business schools have large classes (for their Master’s program) but lack of diversity.

. They replicate the same elitist model as how it was dreamed by Napoleon.

. Entrepreneurship is not part of their agenda.

Unless I have worked in the Matrix for the past 15 years, this presentation is a caricature of today’s reality:

. French business schools have indeed larger classes than 10 years ago. Mostly for visibility and to reach a financial critical mass, the number of students for the pre-experience Masters has more than doubled to reach cohorts of 300 to 500 students. First, these numbers are rather similar to what you could find in a bachelor or master program in many universities worldwide and second, it does not concern the post-experience MBA and MSc programs, which enjoy rather small cohorts compared to their British or US counterparts. And by the way, these pre-experience Masters are consistently ranked as being the best in the world by the Financial Times.

. There is not more or less diversity in these Masters programs than anywhere else. The main difference with other systems is that the selection is drastic to enter the programs but with very low drop-out rates, whereas elsewhere the dominant system is to select during the program. So, at the end, if you study graduates, they have more or less the same profiles as anywhere else. Nevertheless, a tremendous effort has been done by French business schools to diversify their curricula (mostly because of the competitive pressure; students want diversity in the offering). There are now literally several thousand potential paths for the students, when you combine the different options, the apprenticeship, the exchange programs,…no to mention the numerous students associations offering the possibility to develop skills and experience in many related activities. It produces very different profiles at the end.

French business schools have never been elitist, they were historically segregating. Contrary to what could be understood from the article, French business schools are not a dream from Napoleon. Napoleon created the Engineering schools. French business schools have been created by the Chambers of Commerce in the 19th century (the oldest business school in the world is Paris Business School, created in 1829) for the purpose of training the sons of merchants and shop keepers to take over the family business when the parents would retire. France has been a pioneer in business education. This was really entrepreneurial but was of course mostly for this population and not really open to other profiles. But this was for a genuine purpose as no training in commerce or management was available at French universities until the 1960’s and this was more than 100 years ago. Things have obviously changed.

Of course, as it is expected from a mechanical engineer to be knowledgeable about the basic theories and concepts of mechanics, companies expect from our graduates to have a common knowledge on the basics of management. I agree that it does not create diversity but so far it seems to be necessary.

. The comment on Entrepreneurship is also disturbing. Entrepreneurship is present in many business schools for a very long time. The best Bschool in France, HEC, has an Entrepreneur program since 1977. Many Bschools have modules or specialisations in Entrepreneurship, incubators were created, seed capital funds were set up by alumni associations,… French business schools themselves have proven to be entrepreneurial and their students and alumni also.

If there are certainly efforts to be done in the profiles of the recruited students, if there could always be more diversity in the offering and if students are never entrepreneurial enough, French business school are far from being old ladies sitting on their laurels but are constantly reinventing themselves to stick to the global competitive landscape they now belong to.

Sorry to disappoint the readers of the Financial Times with this reply, but we don’t wear beret anymore and I did not have frog legs for breakfast…

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