On the subject of Germany, most people could think of a few household names right away: Volkswagen, Bach, Porsche, Beck's, BMW, Goethe, Siemens, Adidas, Claudia Schiffer, and Mercedes.
When it comes to German business schools, however, internationally recognizable names are harder to come by. Scarcely a handful of the country's business schools are well-known abroad. Few have ever appeared on international b-school rankings. For one of Europe's biggest economies, and the home of some of the world's largest companies and financial institutions, this is a surprise.
So, what's the deal? One simple explanation is that MBA programs are a relatively new to Germany. Until just a few years ago, German business education revolved around a degree called the Diplom-Kaufmann, a four-year program that gave graduates the equivalent of a Master's degree.
Since the "Bologna process" of reforming European higher education began in 1999, Germany has adopted the Bachelor / Master degree system common elsewhere. After the last Diplom students graduate in 2010, the most compelling options for Germany's brightest business students will be a Master's or an MBA.
This new degree system will almost certainly be a boon to the German MBA market, and could prompt some of the country's top universities to launch business schools of their own.
"I think that after the Bologna reforms, the German university market will be perceived as stronger than before," says Daisuke Motoki of FIBAA, an organization that accredits business programs in German-speaking countries and elsewhere. "I expect that will be the case with really good MBA programs. Then a big player in Germany could then be a global player."
Who are the big German players? Five names seem to have a head start: Mannheim Business School, WHU, GISMA, Goethe Frankfurt, and HHL Leipzig. All of these schools are taught in English, which Motoki says is "a prerequisite to be able to attract international students, as well as an international faculty."
Earlier this year, Mannheim became the first German school to garner the "triple crown" of all three major international b-school accreditation organizations - AASCB, EQUIS, and AMBA. Meanwhile WHU, GISMA, and Goethe have all bolstered their MBA and EMBA programs with close ties with US universities, namely Northwestern Kellogg, Duke, and Purdue.
HHL Leipzig (aka The Leipzig Graduate School of Management) is a century old, and has been a private business school since the early 1990s. It has also forged alliances with schools and exchange programs abroad, as well as making the kind of institutional changes other German schools are making to compete internationally.
"We are changing and adapting more a structure that was not common here in Germany," says HHL MBA director Torsten Wulf. "Marketing, admissions, program management, career services, alumni management - all of these things hardly existed, and are things we are definitely introducing."
"In the end, you might have a set of 7-9 larger business schools that have realized that it's important to compete internationally and be in the rankings," says Wulf.
But when will these top-tier German schools make the rankings, like the Financial Times?
"It's only a matter of time", says Christian Homburg, dean of Mannheim Business School. "Although Germany may not become an MBA country to the extent that the US and the UK are in the conceivable future, a handful of business schools have the potential to earn a very good position in the international rankings."
"Up to now, German MBA programs were simply too young to be taken into consideration in the most important rankings", adds Homburg. "But this should change soon".
There are also some other business schools and programs aspiring to be among the top names in both Germany and Europe within a few years. Perhaps the most prominent is the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), a Berlin-based institute founded by 25 large German corporations in 2002.
"To make a long story short, the ambition is to create an INSEAD in Germany," says ESMT MBA Director Francis Bidault. "It's like the national attempt by German industry to put their flag on the MBA map."
Whether or not Germany develops into a more attractive place for international students to do an MBA depends on a number of factors, perhaps none as important as the international reputation of the school itself.
"I don't think employers will judge from which country you got your degree, but from which school," says Bidault. "Employers wouldn't question that INSEAD provides good training, but I'm not sure they even know where INSEAD is."
The other issue, of course, is the local job market. After all, many prospective students pick an MBA program not only for the school's merits and reputation, but also as a potential gateway into a national job market.
"The issue that always makes Europe more difficult in general is that you need to know the language of the country where you are living," says Torsten Wulf at HHL. "If you want to work in Germany, you don't need to be fluent, but you should speak at least some German. If you are willing to learn the language, then it is not difficult to find a job."
Photo: Thomas Wolf / Creative Commons