Five European Business Schools To Watch In 2021

IE Business School Online MBA

Teaching in IE Business School’s Online Global MBA

IE Business School, Madrid, Spain

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

ESMT, Berlin, Germany

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

Imperial College Business School, London, UK

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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