Kester Eddy in Sofia and Budapest -
The world may be in recession, triggered in part by high-flying bankers totting MBAs, but none of this seems to have dampened enthusiasm for what is typically a very expensive educational add-on; at least not judging by the throngs of would-be business school students attending MBA "fairs" in Sofia and Budapest in March.
These fairs - usually held in plush hotels in key cities around the world - allow potential students to meet an array of business schools face to face and ask questions about the vast array of courses - or programmes as they are known in the trade - on offer. In addition, there are usually seminars and panel discussions to assist attendees in making their choices.
"Sofia [on March 17] was a really big crowd; in fact, it was really difficult to get an in-depth conversation, some were very young. Budapest was completely different; most were well prepared, and I've met several highly motivated students," says Laura Russo, of the recruiting and admissions department of the Bocconi School of Management, Milan.
Intriguingly, an older hand at Sofia saw things differently. "I've been travelling to Sofia since QS' [QS World MBA Tour, the organizers] first fair there in 2005. That year participation was massive, but until this year we were not that excited with quantity or quality of participants. This year things were much better, especially in terms of potential candidates. The market now is more mature and participants are finally coming better prepared," says Maria Vasiliki Doukaki, marketing manageress for Athens University of Economics & Business.
Elena Gerdjikova, a 27-year-old IT masters graduate who works as a training manager at ITCE, a leading Bulgarian consulting company, is a good example of this new generation of MBA applicants from Central Europe. "To get the maximum out of the fair, the research should be done well in advance. I used the fair to get answers to questions that I couldn't find from the uni websites. I'll be doing more research, but now I am much more oriented on what to search for," she says.
But an MBA from a top western school doesn't come cheap; the tuition fees for an International MBA at IE Business School in Madrid, for example, leave little change out of €50,000; to that one must add living costs and travel costs, meaning a final total typically of around €65,000. Such a sum - a serious sum to even a well-paid western-based professional - is a fortune to most people in the former communist bloc. Little wonder, then, that Gerdjikova, who says she wants an MBA to "expand horizons and boost my career," eyes the price tags to western MBAs with concern. But she is also determined not to let the price dominate her choice; she puts cost, "together with the quality of the education, the courses schedule and the networking options, in my top four [considerations]," she says.
Based on her need to finance her MBA, Gerdjikova is opting for some kind of modular programme, that is one in which she attends classes on campus and then studies on-line for a period. "I am thinking about something like the Duke [University, US] format: two weeks in campus plus 10 weeks online or something like that. Duke is not my first choice at the moment, but the format is what I'm searching for," she says.
And while Gerdjikova hopes her company may partially sponsor her education once she finally opts for a school, she is also keen to exploit the possibilities of scholarships as an additional support. Zoya Zaitseva, global operations manager for the QS World MBA Tour, told fair attendees in Budapest on March 19 that, "There really are a lot of valuable scholarships available out there. Students need to do their research more. They can be tied to the particular school, others are provided by governments to encourage students to study in their countries. I've seen really innovative students obtain more than one scholarship."
What then, of the global crisis and, in many cases, weaker local currencies in the region forcing up the cost of already expensive MBA programmes? Will this mean fewer, or more, applications from go-getting professionals in CEE? "In a crisis people start investing in themselves," argues Zaitseva.
But the truth is that nobody really knows. "We've seen more applications, but whether that means more students in class, well that depends," says Dario Consoli, of the Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School, in Belgium.
For the moment, most schools at March's fairs in CEE seem keen to come back, assuming the QS World MBA Tour keeps the same venues next year. "We get one or two students each year from Bulgaria. Some of them have learned about our programme from alumni and [only] visit the fair to get final info, but we'll be back [in Sofia], for sure," asserts Athens University's Doukaki.
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