FT Names HEC Paris Best in Europe

For the third year in a row, The Financial Times today (Dec. 5) proclaimed HEC Paris as the best business school in Europe. Rounding out the top five were No. 2 INSEAD, No. 3 London Business School, No. 4 Iese, and No. 5 IMD.

The 75 ranked schools represent 18 countries, though France and the United Kingdom tend to dominate the list. Some 18 schools are based in France, while 21 are in the U.K. Germany could boast five schools among the top 75, followed by Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain.

The FT’s European sweepstakes ranking, a quirky mashup of its earlier polls of the best MBA, Executive MBA, Masters in Management, and executive education schools, is most notable for the wild and unexplainable swings in the standing of one business school after another.

Among the 70 schools trotted out in this European ranking by the Financial Times, slightly more than one in four had double-digit changes in their rankings, either up or down, even though there were barely any significant alterations at the schools.

SDA Bocconi in Milan, a long-time player in business education which only received accreditation from the AACSB last week, zoomed ten places forward to finish seventh. EM Lyon, one of Europe’s most prominent business schools in France, plummeted ten spots to a 20th-place tie with WHU Belsheim, a German school, that rose nine places in a single year.

Those were mild up-and-down bumps in the FT ranking compared to some other rises and falls. WU Vienna University’s business school leaped 23 places to finish 28th, from 51 only last year, Britain’s Henley Business School jumped 25 spots to rank 33rd, from 58th in 2010, while Britain’s University of Bath School of Management plunged 25 places to 63rd from a rank of 38th last year.

It gets even worse. Catolica Lisbon School of Business & Economics rose an amazing 29 positions to rank 33rd, from 62nd last year. Portugal’s Nova School of Business & Economics jumped 34 places ahead to a rank of 39th from 73 in 2010. Essentially, Nova went from barely making the list last year to well inside the best 50 business schools in Europe.

How are such wild swings possible when there were no significant changes in the quality of these schools over the past 12 months? It’s largely because the differences among most of these schools is so small that there is little to no statistical significance of a school’s individual rank. So minute changes in the data used by the Financial Times to rank programs ends up having an exaggerated impact on the overall result.

The FT essentially acknowledges such by conceding that the results fall into clusters of schools. “About 160 points separate HEC Paris at the top from the school ranked 75th,” according to a footnote to a table. “The top 13 business schools, from HEC to Universitat St Gallen, form the first group. The second is headed by Imperial College Business School, which would need to increase its score by 12 points to enter the top tier.”

Of course, this purposely vague explanation fails to provide readers any insight into how close these point scores are, or gives readers the kind of insight to evaluate the validly of a given school’s rank. Not surprising given the embarrasing nature of these dramatic ups and downs, the FT fails to explain neither them nor the fact that slightly over 25% of the schools in the sample had double-digit changes. There is just one exception: In noting Bocconi’s 10-place rise, an FT writer notes: “The Milanese school’s ascent was aided by a debut entry in the 2011 EMBA ranking, in which it was listed 67th in the world, equivalent to 28th in Europe…Improvements in the placing of the school in both the MBA and masters in management ranking–up 10 places and seven places respectively–complete the Bocconi success story, confirming its entry into the European top 10 for the first time.”

So that’s what it takes.

The FT tosses these rankings in a slick 48-page package of stories, photographs, tables, charts, and 15 pages of advertising from the business schools in a PDF, giving the entire enterprise far more credibility than it rightfully deserves. Business school deans and administrators are often highly critical of what they view as an intellectually dishonest exercise, but fearful to go public and call it a sham. Some say they fear retaliation by the Financial Times. Others prefer not to undermine a ranking that could be favorable to their school, if not this time, perhaps next, given the massive volatility in these lists.

The FT is hardly the only guilty party here. But unlike several other rankings, the British newspaper fails to publish the index numbers behind ithe actualr ank it assigns each school. The publication of those raw scores would expose more clearly that the differences among the schools are so slight as to be irrelevant. As an IMD official puts it, “Business schools hate rankings because we really think they are unfair.”

Truth is, it’s more of a love-hate relationship. No school dislikes a ranking that would allow it to receive more applications for its programs or would make it easier to increase tuition and fees without consequence because of increased demand. That’s why so many schools are eager to promote these and other rankings which only gives each list ever more authority.

(See next page for the top ten business schools in Europe, according to The Financial Times)

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.