Are French BSchools the sleeping beauties of the international scene?

Posted on 21/06/2013


Having worked in many different parts of the world, I am still surprised by the almost inexistent presence of the French business schools on the international higher education scene. Hold on! You will certainly tell me, French business schools are very active. Indeed, they have sent and received students on exchange in many countries for a very long time, and before the existence of Erasmus. Some of them have ventured abroad. Among others:

. Skema opened a campus in China but it is only so far to receive their home students .

. Toulouse Business School in Morocco and Spain: no clear information on the number of local students, outcomes or sustainability

. ESSEC and EDHEC in Singapore:  mainly for research and executive education.

. CFVG in Vietnam: while successful and certainly one of the oldest “offshore” operations, it is not a direct operation by a school but by a chamber of commerce with the support of the governments.

In other words, none of them has made the significant move that Australian and British universities (and the US ones) have done in the past 15 years. Out of the 15 largest IBC worldwide, 7 are from Australia and 5 from UK. No French around and they are all very far from that.

What could be some of the explanations?

. The market for higher education worldwide and particularly in emerging or in-transition countries is still a bachelor’s market. Out of the 50000 students studying in the 15 largest branch campuses, around 70% are in bachelor degrees. French business schools have always been weak in this area. They only lately really got interested in developing bachelors; most of the time in French only. Bachelors are not the main emphasis, and certainly not on par with the more established and prestigious master programs.

. They enjoy a rather protected market for their Masters, self-sustained by the recruiters and by the traditional preparatory school model. The mindset in France is that a Master in Management is the only acceptable degree, and that a Bachelor in Management is not enough. It ends up with strange situations where, for example, for the same job in large audit firms, a bachelor in accounting is the norm in many countries, while a Master would be needed in France.

. French business schools have a tradition of receiving students, most of them in exchange, but also fee-paying students, coming traditionally from the French speaking countries, but more and more also from Europe and the rest of the world. As for the US schools, when there is a natural flow of foreign students, institutions are less inclined to venture abroad into new markets.

. Size matters. French business schools are dwarves on the international academic scene (none of them appears in any size related rankings such as THE or ARWU and it is out of reach for them). It means that budget wise, they lack of the capacity to invest the significant amount needed to set up full-fledged branch campuses as the Australian, UK or US universities did. Nevertheless, when subsidies were largely available from the host countries (in the Middle East or in some South-East Asian countries), they did not take on the opportunity. As an example, outside of the business schools world, ESMOD, a small school specialized in fashion, has operations in 15 countries, showing that international presence can be built even with scarce resources.

. Countries where foreign branch campuses are popular, outside of China, had close colonial links with UK (ruled/protected by UK at some point or another of their recent history). And for the ones in Asia, the “Western” local power is Australia. So parents, students,… have a very favorable bias toward any training coming from these two countries. And for the US branch campuses, they benefit from the aura of the US on the international higher education scene.

Nevertheless, French business schools did not venture significantly in the countries where France has some traditional influence, in West Africa, the Indian Ocean, the near East,…

Is now a good time for the French Bschools to make a move?

French Bschools benefit from very strong assets that they could definitely use:

. In terms of quality assurance, out of the 13000+ business schools worldwide, 59 only have the triple accreditation (AMBA, EQUIS and AACSB) and among these 59, France has the second largest number (12) behind UK (17). Well advertised (international accreditations are not always very well known everywhere), it is definitely a selling point to attract students, particularly in countries in transition, where local institutions or existing branch campuses are not all yet accredited internationally.

. They benefit from strong connections with an extensive network of companies, mainly globalized Fortune 500, which have needs for local students for their local subsidiaries. And they would be happy with Bachelor students (they are in fact currently recruiting local graduates from local universities or from branch campuses, in Malaysia for example).

. Despite the relative underinvestment in bachelor programs, they nevertheless have gathered valuable experience that they could use to tailor new bachelors (in English) to answer the needs of these countries.

. They have an extensive network of alumni, all over the world, who could also support the new branch campus, through recruitment of students, career fairs, industry talks,…

. Despite the impression of a crowded competitive landscape, there are still many opportunities to catch, particularly in the countries that will sooner or later fully open their doors to international branch campuses (India, Indonesia, Brazil,…). And there is still room in China or Malaysia for high quality programs.

. Outside of the highly publicized large investments, many operations have started small BUT with the ambition to grow and the required degrees in place to achieve the growth. French Bschools have the means to do that.

What would they gain?

A true international presence that would create many positive spillovers on:

. the other programs they offer, including at their home location.

. their networking with companies. The better they serve the companies, the more they can attract them for other activities (chairs, research,…)

. research opportunities with universities abroad.

. a financial growth opportunity in a stagnant local market.

I would encourage French business schools to reconsider the current very prudent stand they took toward international their activities and the creation of full-fledged “subsidiaries” outside of Europe.