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German MBA Programs: More Self-Confidence Needed!

“Life is made up of things we are obliged to do and things where we have a free choice. And only those who master what they are obliged to will succeed.” – This is a popular saying that can be extended to many areas of life and also aptly characterizes the situation prevailing in the international MBA market. Only those who meet the globally accepted standards can focus their attention on what they freely choose to – positioning themselves as business schools with their own profile and their own competitive advantages.

International standards must be satisfied

However, most German MBA providers falter at the very first hurdle because they do not satisfy the minimum requirements. Although the term "MBA" is not protected internationally, a standard appreciation of what an MBA program encompasses has long since been established. One example of this is the "European MBA Guidelines" produced by the European Quality Link (EQUAL): In addition to formal criteria, such as how long courses should last for and how much work they should involve, these guidelines also stipulate that an MBA program requires a student to have completed a first academic degree and to have a minimum of two to three years of professional career experience and that as a full-time course it should last for at least one year. Moreover, according to the EQUAL definition, MBA programs constitute general management training which also promotes the personal development of participants by offering appropriate courses. Other internationally accepted standards are that the group of students should be as heterogeneous as possible in terms of their first academic degrees, professional career experiences and nationalities, and that all teaching should be in English. For programs that want to be among the elite globally, at least one of the primary international accreditations (AACSB International, EQUIS, AMBA) is also an absolute must.

Lack of self-confidence among many German providers

At first glance, it would seem questionable whether such a tight set of regulations, which are rightly very strict, really do allow providers to form their own profile. My clear response to this is: Yes they do! And in my opinion German providers are perfectly placed to take advantage of such opportunities. If you consider the underlying conditions in which business schools in Germany operate, it is hard to understand why they present themselves to the international market with such a low level of self-confidence. One reason for this may simply be a lack of experience: As state educational establishments have only been allowed to award the title of MBA since an amendment was made to the German Higher Education Framework Act (“Hochschulrahmengesetz”) in 1998, initially many providers needed a phase in which to get to grips with the new framework. But this phase should long be over and German business schools should be focusing on their strengths. Independent studies have revealed that the key decision-making criteria for students interested in taking an MBA include academic quality and successful job placement at the end of it. These two points in particular offer German providers a unique opportunity to distinguish themselves in the global market.

Academic quality as a success factor

For instance, a number of German business schools have a very strong research record which for a long time was not adequately recognized because of their lack of international profile. Happily, this has changed with the increasing number of articles being published by German academics in the world's most renowned publications. This appreciation of quality in research and teaching at universities has also been sharpened by the Initiative for Excellence implemented some time ago by the federal government and German state governments (“Länder”). We can confirm from our own experience that, in particular in the Executive MBA program in which many participants have themselves spent some of their professional career engaged in research (usually in the natural sciences or engineering), for many prospective students the academic standard and reputation of a faculty is ultimately the deciding factor in electing a particular program.

Career opportunities in the world’s third-largest economy

Another unique competitive advantage enjoyed by German business schools is closely linked to the second specified criterion, successful job placement at the end: Germany as a place to do business offers potential which is frequently underestimated. "Made in Germany" is still very much a globally recognized seal of quality. Our own experience also tells us that many highly qualified, talented people from abroad aspire to study and then work in the world's third-largest economy. However, it is still a challenge to inspire these people to undertake an MBA program at a German business school and to offer them the career prospects they are looking for. The only way to do this is to provide a comprehensive career and placement service, which in turn requires close links between the business school and companies. It is striking that many German business schools still need to improve considerably in this area in particular.

Conclusion: Good prospects

Although for the foreseeable future Germany is not going to be an MBA nation on a par with the United States or the United Kingdom, the preconditions for a small group of German business schools to establish themselves with a distinctive and unique profile at the pinnacle of the international elite are not bad at all. However, this will only be possible if they satisfy their "obligation" in the form of minimum standards and they successfully manage to develop the "free choice elements" on the basis of the competitive advantages which have been outlined.  

Prof. Dr. Christian Homburg The Author:
Christian Homburg is President of Mannheim Business School and Professor of Marketing at the University of Mannheim in Germany. Christian Homburg ranks first in the Handelsblatt-Ranking of german-speaking professors for Business Administration.

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