We’re in tune with the times

At the end of October, I was interviewed by a journalist from “De Standaard”, a Belgian newspaper about the School. I am happy to post this interview here.

Source: De Standaard, 31.10.2009
Author: Karin De Ruyter

PHILIPPE HASPESLAGH, DEAN VLERICK MANAGEMENT SCHOOL

We’re in tune with the times

Last week, Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School took 10th place in The Economist’s worldwide MBA ranking, 4th place for European business schools, and No. 1 in the Benelux. Gaining this position in the top 10 rewards years of dedicated effort to climb up the rankings of MBA education.

 ‘Vlerick has worked hard for many years − and is still working hard − to internationalise the School and to improve the quality of its programmes,’ says Philippe Haspeslagh, who was appointed Dean of Vlerick last year. ‘The rise in the ranking is a result of these efforts, not a goal in itself.’

Just how important are these rankings for a business school?

‘In Flanders, Vlerick might well be a symbol − but from the international viewpoint, the quality that we deliver is greater than our brand recognition. And so, the ranking will certainly help our recognition. But you mustn’t exaggerate its importance. The rankings are for full-time MBA programmes, and that’s just a part − less than 10% − of our activity. But of course the full-time MBA is your flagship programme, your calling card. It’s also significant that we achieve  this with our own faculty of professors and not with visiting professors who are here for only a few weeks or a year at best.’

‘For potential students, though, these rankings are an important aid. Earning an MBA is a major decision for them: an MBA programme is expensive, and it also costs a year of their life, which they will often spend in a region they’re not familiar with. And only afterwards can they judge whether they’ve made the right choice.’

‘So, the rankings are an important source of information on which to base this decision. They’re a kind of external validation of the various business schools − because these rankings are drawn up very seriously with rigorous playing rules and audits.’

‘In addition, there is of course the word-of-mouth advertising, the information that ex-students and others put on the Internet. That’s also an information source not to be underestimated − it’s even more important than the information that we ourselves provide in our brochures.’

But the position that a school attains can differ markedly from one ranking to another. In The Financial Times’s ranking, for example, Vlerick is in 75th place. Which ranking should a potential student believe?

‘Not every MBA is suitable for every student − and each student might expect something different from an MBA programme. So, in a number of areas, the rankings speak to well-defined profiles, because they attach more or less importance to certain criteria. The Financial Times, for example, surveys the rise in salary of the students three years after they had received their MBA, and they give that criterion a weight of 40%. The Economist, on the other hand, gets 50% of its information from students of the past year, 30% from students of two years ago, and the rest from students of three years ago. Furthermore, The Economist looks particularly at the level of income, and not so much at its increase. The Economist also gives greater weight to the experience of the students in the programme, while The Financial Times looks more at things like: how many profs have a doctorate; or, how much does the faculty publish in top research  journals? Incidentally: worldwide there are more than 3,000 MBA programmes. So, even 75th place is not so bad.’

Apparently, Vlerick scores well on the income criterion: according to The Economist last week, Vlerick alumni are also the best paid.

‘Oh, I wouldn’t make too much of that. First of all, Vlerick has somewhat more mature students than some other business schools, and so they also earn more. Besides, that comparison is a bit distorted by the low value of the dollar, so that the salaries of European managers automatically come out to be quite a bit higher than those of American MBAs. So, you really need to put this into perspective.’

You said that not every business school is suited for every student. What do the students at Vlerick think?

‘In a certain sense, you could say that Vlerick is still a business school in the traditional model. Business schools originally grew up around engineers, who were looking for productivity improvements, and psychologists, who were focused on labour relations. But over the years a lot of schools have been populated with economists and finance faculty. They are also typically drawing in young students − 24 and 25 year-olds − who want to specialise in financial techniques and market models. After graduation, when they start to work in the financial world, they see their salaries immediately shoot up − especially when their previous salary was based on Indian or Chinese salaries for example. It’s logical that such schools score high in the FT rankings, because their graduates often enjoy a steep rise in income upon graduation.’

‘What we do leans more towards the original business school: we train entrepreneurs and managers. Therefore, we not only provide our students with a number of tools and techniques, we also impart judgement capabilities and ethical insights.’

‘We place great importance on that last ability. This year, for the first time, Vlerick has participated in the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes ranking, coming in at 70th place. This bi-annual ranking looks at the extent to which Corporate Social Responsibility is treated in the MBA programmes. One of the criteria is the degree to which students are confronted with social and environmentally related topics in the course of their studies, and for this criterion we jumped into 20th place.’

A minute ago, you said that there are over 3,000 MBA programmes worldwide. Even in Belgium, there is a whole assortment, six of which are offered by universities. Is that not in fact too many?

‘Here at Vlerick we offer a complete range of programmes: a full-time and a part-time MBA programme, Master’s degree programmes, open programmes, and a number of tailor-made programmes. To be able to do all that, you do need a certain magnitude. Even with our 60 professors and our €30 million turnover, we’re too small to really be able to work internationally in all these areas. So, colleagues that are even smaller can at best aspire to play a role locally and to specialise in certain niches.’

‘For us, in any case, the competition is increasingly from outside Belgium. Under my predecessor’s administration, Vlerick took a number of daring steps. By merging with Leuven, we added a small campus in St. Petersburg, and we’re moving forward with an MBA in China in collaboration with the National School of Development at Beijing University. My job, first of all, is to further internationalise our core products. In our pre-experience Masters programmes, for example, we now also have 30% international students. Of course our post experience MBA has over forty nationalities’

‘Actually, the ultimate challenge is to make Vlerick more international, while at the same time continuing to play our role in Flanders − in order to ensure that we don’t end up with two Vlerick schools: one Flemish and one international. My motto is: “Act and behave as one Vlerick.” And that goes for several areas: unity between Leuven and Ghent, between Flemish and international, the School and its alumni…’

How is the relationship with the alumni?

The quality of the alumni is very important for a business school, in addition to a whole series of other aspects like the quality of the service, of the programmes, of the professors, of the recruitment and placement service, and so on.’

‘Vlerick’s alumni association is an independent organisation, but it is certainly important for our international recognition. So, we’re also working with them to further develop their international chapters or branches. Our alumni are in fact our best ambassadors. They’ve also helped the School through a number of difficult times in the past. And many alumni are still actively engaged with the School, as godmother or godfather to foreign students, for example. Or they help conduct interviews in the student recruitments.’

But in Flanders the so-called ‘Vlerick network’ − meaning the Vlerick alumni − doesn’t always have a spotless reputation.

(smiles) ‘I know it: people are sometimes surprised that I live in Brussels and not in Sint-Martens-Latem. Some people apparently think that the Dean of Vlerick School has a kind of official residence there.’

‘But seriously: the stories in the media about that ‘Vlerick network’ have sort of taken on a life of their own. From time to time, it so happens that someone is portrayed as a ‘key figure in the Vlerick network’ − while he or she has actually never studied or held a position here.’

‘On the other hand, of course, you run into our ex-students everywhere in Flanders. We have some 14,000 alumni: you find some of them in all corners of the world, and some 10,000-12,000 in Flanders. That means that a whole lot of Flemish companies are being run by Vlerick alumni, and inevitably you have both good and less good among them.’

‘It is certainly a pity that all those stories about ‘the Vlerick network’ sometimes lose sight of how much Vlerick has done for the professionalisation of the business community and management in Flanders.’

In order to have good alumni, you must first attract good students. How many candidates are ultimately accepted into Vlerick?

‘Just as in all good schools, the rule of thumb is that, out of every 10 – 12 candidates, 2 or 3 make it through the entire recruitment process − the era when all candidates made it through the recruitment process is a while behind us. There is also a kind of self-selection among the candidate-students. The quality of the students that submit their application is also connected with the school’s ranking. Insead, the London School of Economics, and Spain’s IESE are at the absolute top. We’re somewhere in the middle of the group that comes next, in the company of (for example) Rotterdam, Cambridge, Oxford…’

Is the poor − or non-existent − image of Belgium an obstacle to attracting students?

‘Let me say that it’s not easy to establish a brand name when you have to present yourself as ‘Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School from Belgium’. We don’t even have ‘Brussels’ in our name. And yes, Belgium is not Milan or Madrid… But when we can get candidate students to the point of coming to visit the campus, and they then discover Leuven or Ghent as student towns, fortunately it’s often a whole different story. Those are real plus points.’

The School’s name is extremely long as well…

(laughs) ‘I think that we’re in the process of making a shorter name. The merger of the Leuven and Ghent business schools has turned out very well. Not only because that has given the School the necessary critical mass, but also because it has combined the academic accents of Leuven with the more entrepreneurial focus of Ghent. The School’s interaction with the universities themselves is also very good now. For instance, the two rectors are on our Board of Directors.’

Do you feel the effects of the crisis?

‘Yes. Particularly in the second half of this year, we’re seeing a clear decline in executive education. But we’ve been able to compensate for that with an increase in the Masters programmes and the full-time MBA, and with more income from research. So, we’re one of the few schools in Europe that will still achieve a small growth this year and that will be in balance financially. But we have very little idea what next year will bring.’

You also receive subsidies from the government − other business schools do not.

‘Those subsidies comprise only 7% or so of our income, that’s not really very much. Roughly, you can say that we have four about equally important sources of income: the Masters and MBA programmes, the open programmes, the programmes that are designed specifically for companies, and partnerships with companies that sponsor research via academic Chairs and so forth. That last one is quite unique: it’s not contract research or consulting, but rather research that is also academically significant.’

And has the crisis also had an impact on the content of the courses?

‘The crisis is providing a fantastic learning opportunity − both for the profs as well as for the students. For 10 years now, we’ve offered a Masters programme in financial services, which is focused on general leadership and management in the financial services field. There are students in that programme who work for 10 different banks and insurance firms. Well now, those students have learned lessons this year that they will probably never forget. And as I’ve already said, we’ve always been fairly strongly focused on entrepreneurship, with a lot of attention on Corporate Social Responsibility. And that is even being reinforced by modules that we have recently added to our MBA, such as ‘Vlerick Giving Something Back’, in which the students in the full-time MBA do a project of at least a month in an NGO or a non-profit organisation. So, we’re moving in the direction in which the wind is now blowing. This mind-set is also in our marketing, and that’s why we also appeal to students who feel drawn to these things.’

Getting to know me…

Who: Philippe Haspeslagh

Workday: Luckily, every day is  different…

Free time: First, a dip in the fitness centre’s swimming pool, then a gallery visit, a bite to eat and a film

Hell: A flight connection at Heathrow

Heaven: A walk or bike ride through beautiful nature, a tête-à-tête with my wife or one of my grown-up children

Restaurant: Casa Bini in the 6th Arrondissement in Paris

Favourite city: Paris

Gadget : At Vlerick, I had to exchange my Blackberry for an HTC

Music:  Portuguese Fado

Book: At the moment, From higher aims to hired hands, a history of business schools, by Rakesh Khuranna

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2 Responses to We’re in tune with the times

  1. Dear Sir,

    I must congratulate you on the candour of the interview. As an MBA student in Vlerick, I could not agree more with you on all the issues discussed here.

    I am sure with your guidance Vlerick would go far ahead.

    Cheers,
    Sandeep

  2. Prasanna says:

    A very thoughtful and open interview I must say! Great way to communicate what Vlerick is and what one can expect. Good work!

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