Five European Business Schools To Watch In 2021

When stories of COVID-19 cases started to emerge in Europe early in 2020, everybody in business education braced themselves. It seemed that few organizations would be as badly impacts as business schools, with their lecture-rooms filled with students and faculty constantly jetting to and from all corners of the globe, and a business model focused on the idea that face-to-face interaction is the cornerstone of a top-quality experience. When a deadly airborne pathogen is at large, that model no longer looks quite so appealing.

It was immediately obvious that life was going to change radically for schools, and they pivoted with aplomb, immediately moving learning online – and at the best schools, even developing whole new hybrid models that have proved so successful that they are being suggested as a blueprint for the future.

As well as being potentially vulnerable, businesses schools are also arguably the best-placed organizations imaginable to innovate their way out of the COVID crisis. They teach people how to flourish in a volatile and uncertain world, so it’s no surprise that they were in their element when it came to dealing with a crisis. And so it has proved. Zoom became a way of life, the long resistance to remote learning crumbled, investment in new tech was fast-tracked and best-practices were shared.

In the stories that follow, we look at how some of Europe’s most innovative schools reacted to the crisis to help re-create business education. One sped ahead with the creation of an astonishing virtual campus, where students and faculty in the guise of avatars wander can attend lectures and discuss projects. Another has found itself at an advantage after opening a new, hybrid-enabled campus immediately prior to the beginning of the pandemic and is preparing to leverage this in the post-covid landscape.

One has found that its focus on cutting-edge educational techniques means it has a head-start when it comes to rethinking and reinventing how we teach people in the future. Another has managed to use its new knowledge of remote teaching to quickly create a potentially disruptive online MBA of a sort not seen before in Europe, and another has seen its association with cutting edge science enhance its profile.

Far from crumbling, these business schools have reacted to uncertainty in a way that would have their professors nodding in admiration: by realising that when others are losing their heads, that is the time to innovate and create your own future.

Here are five European business schools to watch in the coming year – and beyond.

NEOMA’s virtual campus

Bored of Zoom? At NEOMA, a business school with campuses in Paris, Reims and Rouen in France, they knew right at the start of the pandemic that teaching via videoconferencing was never going to be pleasant, long-term. The solution? They accelerated the development of their virtual campus, the only one of its kind in Europe.

It’s an amazing thing, a Minecraft-like island with a campus building containing over 80 rooms, lecture theatres, classrooms, break-out rooms and offices where students and faculty create an avatar that resembles them, then wander about attending lectures, presenting projects, chatting and collaborating. When Alain Goudey, NEOMA’s Chief Digital Officer, showed us around, we bumped into another staff member and a student in a side-room chatting about creating a virtual Chinese New Year celebration. They told us they expect up to 1,000 people to attend.

Development of the virtual campus had begun before covid struck. “We have several campuses, and we needed to find a way to gather people together, so we need something like this for our day-to-day activities at the school,” Goudey explains. When campuses started to close down, NEOMA and partners Laval Virtual sped up the development.

The result is an experience that makes you think you’ve seen the future. A professor can give a talk looking out on the avatars of her students sitting on banked seating, and students can present and listen to feedback to their classmates. You could have a chat in a group, then if a colleague was there, wander over and ask for some input. Body-language is also possible: you can shake hands when you meet someone, shrug, nod or clap.

Your avatar can even log on to a virtual computer and use the internet in the virtual rooms. We had a look at, and students have used it to pore over spreadsheets or watch videos together. It’s not real life. But weirdly it feels a lot like it. “A tool like this creates a sense of unity in terms of time and place,” says Goudey. Starting in February, he plans to run a series of seminars around digital transformation inside the virtual campus.

“When you use Zoom you pay high attention to your own face on the webcam and your attention is not always on what is being said,” says Goudey. Because the avatar is living inside the space for you, you can drink a coffee and the avatar is still representing you in the right way.” It also allows professors to create interactivity and proximity, which is hard using just a webcam. And it’s less dispiriting than staring at a screen full of dozens of black rectangles for hours.

The virtual campus also lends itself to spontaneity. “If you are running a class and want to split people into groups, you have to plan that beforehand and it is quite difficult,” Goudey says. In the virtual campus, you can react on the spot to the class. If everyone decides to head to their own spaces to discuss something, they can.

The virtual campus is not just a pandemic workaround. “This is our fourth campus. And of course it’s virtual, but it’s real campus. If you want to book a room for a meeting, you use the same system as for our physical ones,” Goudey says. NEOMA has reacted to the pandemic in other ways too, using VR headsets for virtual site tours.

We finished our tour of the campus on the beach outside, sitting under an umbrella. It might be the Zoom fatigue talking, but it felt like the future.

MBA students at SDA Bocconi in Milan, Italy. Courtesy photo

At first glance, it might seem that opening a swanky campus in October 2019, just a few months before covid shut down Europe, was a mistake. After all, much education will be online for the foreseeable future and all those state-of-the-art classrooms and breakout rooms are sitting gathering dust.

But SDA Bocconi’s curvaceous and shiny new building doesn’t just look pretty on the outside, it is packed with technology such as cameras in every lecture theatre because the Italian school had twigged that the future is hybrid, even before the pandemic forced everyone down that route. In 2020, that proved to be a great insight.

Bocconi – which is connected to a wider university — already had 30 online executive programs, often taught by the same professors who teach the MBA and MiM, meaning that when covid tore through the Lombardy region in March 2020 – the first big outbreak in Europe — the school was able to pivot fast, deciding one Friday evening that it would go online on the following Monday. (We wrote about their experiences here.)

After almost a year of online teaching, the school’s dean, Giuseppe Soda, is evangelical about the possibilities of hybrid learning. “We are not going to see online substituting face-to-face learning, in the way cars supplanted the horse. The learning formats are complementary,” he says. While much can be done remotely, the face-to-face experience is better for the vital element of “problematization”, meaning that it is easier to disagree, and present other viewpoints. “The plurality of perspectives is crucial to deal with the complexity of this world. You need to be able to join the dots,” Soda says.

Bocconi’s dean adds that the future of Bocconi is offering students “a less standardised more personalisation” education, recognising the huge variety of modern careers. Bocconi’s 12-month full-time MBA has just 100 participants split into two groups, but small is beautiful. “We know all of them by name.” says Soda, adding that “I don’t think you can if you have 1,000 per year.”

Milan itself is another attraction of this school. Over the past 20 years, successive local governments have attracted businesses with start-up friendly legislation, and Bocconi has tapped into this dynamism by creating a new-business accelerator. As an centuries-old banking center, it is expected to hoover up banking jobs leaving post-Brexit London. Of course, Milan is also a hot house for the luxury, design and fashion sectors and is a magnet for people from all over the world wanting to learn about it.

All of this has changed the city. “Milan is becoming a real melting-pot of cultures.” Soda says, adding that the school is aiming to “increase its global footprint” by appealing more to international students. It says that overseas applications have already increased 150 per cent in recent years. This is precisely the sort of place you might expect to be a winner in the post-covid landscape, as the new world is created.

Above all, though, Bocconi aims to imbue its students with a particularly modern way of thinking. Soda, who in 2020 was appointed for a second four-year term as dean, points out that the MBA has courses on populism and the economy and several on geopolitics, ensuring a wide and deep education. Bocconi has also built its values into the fabric of the university in the form of the solar panels that power it. “We believe that we are delivering knowledge, but also exposing students to our vales and view of the world,” says Soda. “Sustainable, open, and inclusive.”

IE Business School Online MBA
IE Business School Online MBA

Teaching in IE Business School’s Online Global MBA

Some schools might have discovered the opportunities offered by technology in the past 12 months. Not IE Business School. The jewel in the crown of the Madrid-based school is the WOW room, which stands for “window on the world” and features a massive, 48 square metre curved interactive wall which uses real-time simulations, holograms, big data analysis, and an AI system that reads students’ body-language and understand their emotions and level of engagement, and uses big data to analyse information in real time. IE has been using the WOW room to deliver classes online since 2016.

The school had a head start in grasping the possibilities of remote learning, But the school isn’t all about tech, it is also a leader in embracing all the latest teaching techniques. It calls the resulting philosophy “liquid learning”, which the school says is designed to “support the dynamic lives and unique needs of students in an emerging unpredictable, fluid, and fast changing world.” Perhaps the best way to understand this is to think about the old, static, top-down style of learning — and then imagine the absolute opposite. That is liquid learning.

The idea is to give students a rich, personalised education which embraces in-person and online teaching, and lifelong learning. There’s a lot of feedback, sharing, flipped classrooms, personalisation, active learning, discussion, gamification, collaboration, and other modern teaching practices. “One of the key themes for IE is always new worlds, new careers and new education,” says Nick Van Dam, IE’s chief learning officer (who previously had the same job at McKinsey), who will head up the new Liquid Learning Center when it opens in February 2021 and ensure that everything IE does is suffused with the latest learning science.

“We are really making sure that learning design is based on solid, evidence-based principles that will really advance the learning experience. Universities are realising that the future of learning is really about how to learn,” adds Van Dam. Technology is part of this, too, and we are talking about a whole world beyond teleconferencing, such as Class for Zoom which is designed specifically for learning, Miro for brainstorming, and many others. “We want to create effective, efficient and immersive learning,” says Van Dam.

If you are looking for a school that is well-placed to hit the ground running when the world re-opens and students start jetting round the world again, then it is harder to imagine one that is better placed, because in September IE will also open its new campus, a spectacular 180m (595ft) tower with 35 floors, a 600-capacity auditorium, 64 flexible classrooms and 30 spaces carefully designed to promote interaction, innovation, and creativity, as well as open areas on various floors for social and cultural experiences.

The skyscraper will contain a Venture Lab to accelerate the creation of start-ups, and the FabLab for architectural and design projects. There will also be a pool, gym, sports courts, spaces for musical performances and meditation rooms.

This will allow for a huge increase in student numbers, and the school is adamant that its cosmopolitan vibe will be maintained. “IE is the most international university in the world. We don’t want to have more than 10 per cent of the students from any one country except for Spain,” Executive Vice President Diego del Alcázar Benjumea told Poets&Quants. After the last year, could anything sound more exciting?

ESMT in Berlin leads all international business schools in endowment per student

As you might expect for a business school based in the start-up capital of Europe, Berlin, ESMT always aims to disrupt. And following a year in which online learning has seriously moved into the mainstream in late 2021, the 20-year-old private university is determined to grab the new reality and fondness for remote learning by the horns, and launch a 100 percent online MBA that will be pretty much unique in Europe.

“We’re taking a good look at a lot of the successful programmes in the US and see how they’re structured, and they are generally much more flexible than what is currently on offer in Europe,” says Associate Dean for Degree Programs and EdTech, Nick Barniville. “What we’ve created is a fully stackable programme. You’ll be able to buy the individual modules or sub blocks of courses as you go.”

ESMT’s first non-cohort based degree programme will be a 24-month program – though students will have five years to complete it – and students will pay a charge each month, spreading the cost and making it more accessible, the school believes. The first intake will consist of 50 people, and the plan is to raise that to 150 in time.

Students will be able to add to the basic courses, adding in personalised coaching on the career side, or to take a global module either in Berlin, or somewhere else, they will be able to pay extra for that. As a member of the GMAC group ESMT’s online MBAs will also have access to “small network online courses” (SNOCs) run by any of the 30-plus schools in the network. “We’re really giving people the chance to put together their own programming in a much more flexible way than it is currently on the market,” Barniville says.

When covid struck the continent ESMT was quick off the mark. A member of the Future of Management Education Alliance (along with two others in this list, IE and Imperial) ESMT grasped the nettle. “Throughout the pandemic was we had FOMA sub-groups working on different themes related to teaching in these conditions,” says Barniville. “One of these was the hybrid classroom group. So we were able to learn from all of our partners without having to reinvent the wheel.”

As a result, ESMT have already spent half a million euros kitting out lecture theatres for the new reality, including in-desk and ceiling microphones, camera systems and screens. Hybrid, they say, is here to stay. In future “there is going to be a section of people who can’t physically attend the classes, even if it’s a face-to-face programme, or who simply don’t want to,” says Barniville. “So the investment we’ve made in hybrid is going to allow us to offer this type of format as standard for our classes as long as long as anybody wants it. We think this will be a strategic advantage in future.” This investment has already born fruit. In September, ESMT launched a part time blended programme, 80 percent online and 20 percent face-to-face with 14 residences in Berlin.

In 2019, ESMT also created its own incubator, Vali Berlin, to help connect students with start-up ideas with the wider ecosystem in the city. With admirable foresight, the school decided to focus on ed-tech. As Barniville says, “I think that there is there is room for business schools to be a testbed for new technologies, and one way of doing that is to incubate companies in that area.”

Imperial College students outside class

Few universities have seen their reputation grow during the pandemic, but over the past 12 months Imperial College London has become a household name in the UK. A world-renowned centre for science (it has produced several Nobel prize winners), it was involved in both early vaccine development and epidemiological modelling which heavily influenced the UK government.

Unsurprisingly, Imperial College Business School seems to have gained from a halo effect, with a 33 percent increase in applications from the UK this year. It has proved particularly attractive to those with a scientific bent, including medical students who have been inspired by their covid experience to take an MBA. (We interviewed one to get his story.)

The business school is intimately connected with the wider Imperial family, and it is common for the two to combine business nous with scientific wizardry to work on commercializing breakthroughs.

It is also home to an EdTech Lab, which over the past years has produced some mind-blowing innovations, such as a chatbot tutor and hologram technology that allows lecturers appear in several places simultaneously.

When covid struck, a Professor of Innovation took charge of the response, seeing that the disruption could be used as a catalyst for long-term change. Imperial implemented a three-stage response – stabilise, enhance, innovate – the last focusing on innovations that will endure post pandemic.

For example, Imperial created a “multi-modal classroom” which enables remote and on-campus students to attend classes simultaneously. Not only does this help students complete their courses during the pandemic, Imperial say that this new way of working will remain post-pandemic, and give programs a new flexibility which they hope will appeal to part-time students, allowing them to take courses either online or in person, and to seamlessly switch between the two. The MSc in Strategic Marketing will, from September, be available in both “study modes”. “We are hoping to do more like this, now the technology exists,” say the school.

In 2018 Imperial and four other schools FOMA created a company called Insendi to create an online learning platform, and although it is now a standalone organisation, Imperial has continued to work closely with it to create new remote experiences, including adding asynchronous activities which promote social, experiential and tutor supported learning. During covid, several other schools have joined the pioneering project.

Imperial’s focus on technology goes beyond teaching, though, and in October 2020 it and Singapore Management University opened a new research centre dedicated to green finance and talent development, the Singapore Green Finance Centre, which will carry out research and develop talent to promote low-carbon projects in Asia. If one thing is certain in future, it is that Imperial will never stand still.


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