On a morning in March 2020, French business school EDHEC hosted a press conference to announce the launch of its ambitious 20-25 Strategic Plan, backed by a generous €230 million investment. The plan would redefine the school’s mission and chart its course for a greener, more impactful future. Plans for the rollout and implementation had been underway for months.
Later that same evening, President Emmanuel Macron went on TV to announce that France was going into lockdown for the next two months.
EDHEC pivoted to online education and closed its doors for the first time in its 114-year history. More importantly, it stuck to its plan.
“We want to be the school that thanks to its research, thanks to its educational program, and thanks to its graduates puts the power of business at the service of future generations,” EDHEC dean Emmanuel Métais tells Poets&Quants.
“We want to make sure that our alumni will integrate sustainability and positive impact in their future decisions when they become managers, leaders and partners.”
A FRENCH BUSINESS SCHOOL WITH BIG ASPIRATIONS
EDHEC Business School is a non-profit founded in 1906 by a group of entrepreneurs in the North of France, a region that then was a little like the Silicon Valley of Europe.
The school welcomes about 9,500 students per year in undergraduate, graduate and executive programs. While about a third of them are French, students come from about 110 nationalities, including many from the United States. Its three main campuses are in Lille in the North of France, in Nice on the French Riviera, and in Paris. It also has research campuses in London and Singapore, and 50,000 alumni around the world.
Back by its strategic plan, EDHEC has big aspirations. It wants to be a leader in climate finance, sustainability and business for good, driving its stake in a greener future both in and out of the classroom. It also wants to take a bigger stake in America, establishing connections with prominent U.S. institutions.
In 2017, Métais set a goal to become a top 10 European business school, and in 2022 The Financial Times ranked it the 7th best business school in Europe while one of the largest French business newspapers ranked it No. 3.
Métais, a professor of strategy and management, was appointed dean in 2017 and has been with EDHEC for more than 25 years. Just over halfway through the ambitious 20-25 plan, we checked in with Métais to talk about its progress. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What sets EDHEC apart from other European business schools?
There are three main differentiators. First, I think we are the only school in the world in which our logo is a human being. I think that it tells you about a key element in our DNA, which is a humanistic dimension. Historically, we belong to the Catholic University of Lille, and we not only want to educate leaders and managers, but also people.
A second differentiator is that our baseline is to make an impact. Twenty years ago, as we strove to be an outstanding international business school, we of course invested in research, but we wanted to go a step further. Our professors all around the world publish articles in academic and scientific journals, but it’s not an end in itself. If what we publish is valuable, then it has to have an impact on the industry and on companies.
We launched a research center in asset management, EDHEC-Risk Institute, 20 years ago, and in 2012, we launched a spin off company, Scientific Beta, which sold the IP (intellectual property) of our professors to industry and to investors all around the world. For instance, the pension fund of the New York Police replicates EDHEC indices.
Scientific Beta grew up little by little and then faster and faster. We’d been asked if we would be interested in selling this company, and we said no once, we said no twice, and no for a third time. Finally, in January 2020, we had a proposition for 200 million Euros and we said yes. Beyond the amount of money, which belongs to the EDHEC Foundation, this was the way we created an impact. I mean, we want our research to be useful to society and Scientific Beta is evidence of what we’ve been able to achieve. The money we’ve earned will be used for scholarships, to support research, and part of it went to an endowment for a continuous scholarship fund.
I like to tell the story because it tells us about our DNA. We have an entrepreneurial mindset, and entrepreneurship is one of our key differentiators along with finance and impact research.
Speaking of entrepreneurship, I understand the school was founded by prominent French businessmen. Can you tell us about EDHEC’s entrepreneurial ecosystem?
We were born in the north of France, an area where there has always been a lot of business. Especially in Lille, you have a lot of big family businesses like Auchan which is one of the biggest retailers in Europe. We have Decathlon, and Lesaffre, a world leader in the yeast industry.
It’s a very dynamic area in terms of family businesses, and all these people created EDHEC a bit more than 100 years ago. At that time, North of France was kind of like the Silicon Valley of Europe. There was a lot of textile, a lot of coal and steel industries. Today, it’s more about retail, chemistry, and pharmaceuticals, and a lot of family businesses. So in terms of ecosystem, this is where we were born, and we have kept this entrepreneurial spirit in our DNA.
We have an entrepreneurial incubator in Lille, located in Campus Jean Arnault, a building given to us by the Arnault family. We are part of Station F in Paris, one of the biggest startup campuses in the world. And we have an incubator in Nice jointly with an engineering school for tech startups. All in all, every year I think we incubate something like 50 startups.
When you took over as dean in 2017, what were your big goals at that time?
My main goal was twofold: I wanted to enter the top 10 in European Business Schools Financial Times ranking. At that time, we were fluctuating between 15 and 20 depending on the year. But that was a secondary goal.
My first goal was really to put in place what I just mentioned: To have an impact for future generations, to launch this mindset, and to start deeply transforming the school in order to reach this goal.
So basically, this meant three big transformations: First, EDHEC is quite well known for our research in asset management. I really want us now to be known worldwide for climate finance, so finance for good. We have launched a research center (EDHEC-Risk Climate Impact Institute) on which we have dedicated €20 million, to develop tools and good research for integrating climate change in finance.
The second transformation was what we call program hybridization. If we want our students to be able to deal with societal issues — whether it is climate change, whether it is making good use of technology, whether it is social justice, or whatever — of course we have to educate them about management, finance, accounting, marketing, and so on. But, we also have to allow them to train in other fields as well, like engineering, philosophy, political sciences, etc. We want to open their minds.
We have signed a lot of double degree agreements with schools outside the field of management. We have signed agreements, for instance, with Mines ParisTech, probably one of the best engineering schools in France, to launch a Master of Science (MSc) in Climate Change & Sustainable Finance. We teach finance, they teach climate. We have now launched a double degree in management and journalism with the best school of journalism in France. We have a double degree in mathematics. We have many double degrees in a lot of fields.
And the third transformation is, of course, digitalization. The COVID crisis accelerated our digital transformation, but we launched in 2018 a new branch called EDHEC Online. It’s inside EDHEC, but it’s outside the core business. It has fully online programs, but with a true authentic experience. The goal is by 2025 to have 10% of our revenues coming from EDHEC Online and we are on the track.
What are you doing to protect the authentic experience for online students? Things like networking, connection with professors, etc.
Our goal here is not to compete with Coursera or edX and these kinds of massive online courses. They are fine, but this is not the kind of offer we want to deliver.
First, we keep the size of the court rather small, so no more than 30 people per class. Second, we regularly invite all the students on campus wherever they are located. And third, we maximize group work and we have a lot of tutors — people who help professors in managing the learning process for the students. Because we know that if you are in a self paced learning process, the rate of dropout is 95%. These tutors are responsible to check that the students are engaged, that they are working individually and collectively, and this makes a huge difference.
We have also partnered with several business schools worldwide such as Imperial College in London, John Hopkins University in the U.S., and Singapore Management University. We have now 10 to 15 schools that joined the network in an alliance to accelerate the development of online learning for our programs. We have reached more than 500 students this year.
Well, let’s talk about the mission to transition to a greener future in greater detail. First, why was it important to you and what kind of progress have you made?
When we started to work on the plan, of course, we wanted to have this “for future generation” differentiator and transformation drive. We really took time to think about what kind of positive impact we wanted to have because it’s been difficult to do everything — gender parity, inclusion and diversity, climate change, social justice, etc., – all at the same time. We do our best to address all of these challenges, and we will invest in each of them, but finally we ended up with climate change because it’s the most important matter. If in 50 years from now we can no longer live on Earth, all of the other battles will be meaningless.
This is why we decided first to invest in the EDHEC Risk Climate Impact Institute. We have opened new programs like the Master of Science in Climate Finance. We have launched a lot of new courses relating to climate change. For instance, we have one course which is compulsory in masters and bachelor programs, which is called Planetary Boundaries and New Economic Models. Of course, there are a lot of specializations in various programs relating to climate change.
Of course, the business school as an institution has to do its best to fight climate change as well. We have decided to decrease our trips. We used to travel a lot from one campus to another, and we have decided to reduce this and to, whenever possible, take the train. We are also trying to reasonably decrease our travel outside of France. We are going to invest something like €25 million euros in our Lille campus to decrease our carbon footprint. So we’ve taken very concrete actions as an institution to have our contribution to the fight against climate change.
Have you heard of students choosing EDHEC because of your climate initiatives?
I hope so. At least on this issue, it seems to me that France is not doing that bad. When I talk to key people in the finance industry, they tell me — and this is not very often the case — that on climate change, and especially climate finance, the U.S. is a bit behind us. So my assumption is that some students have chosen EDHEC for this reason.
Students, and especially young students, are paying a lot of attention. They’re launching new student associations, new student clubs around the issue. It’s creating a kind of virtual circuit between the students, to the professors, to the school and to the alumni.
By the way, we received financial support from a lot of companies, and especially banks.
So what are your goals as you look at the next five years of your tenure as dean?
Well, it’s to accelerate this transformation strategy. It’s very exciting, but it’s also sometimes challenging. Not everyone is ready to change.
Even as the two-year MBA in the U.S. faces some headwinds for all but the top-ranked schools, one year accelerated programs are more popular in Europe than they are here. Why do you think that is?
What is interesting is that in the U.S. you have two-year MBAs while Europe has more one-year MBAs or 16-month MBAs. But if you look at the Master in Management program, it’s exactly the contrary. So basically, we offer two years Master in Management programs, but it’s not very popular in the U.S. And we do not understand how you can deliver a good master in one year, so I can easily find myself in the shoes of my U.S. colleagues.
It’s true that more and more MBA applicants are looking for fast-track programs. Take the example of EDHEC’s Global MBA, the average age is 31, and they have between 7-8 years of professional experience, which is a bit older than traditional U.S. MBAs. Sometimes they have a family and they have already started a successful career, they don’t want to put their job on hold for too much time. In terms of duration and risk, QS consistently ranks EDHEC among the best in the world for return on investment. All in all, I think that the European format is probably more valuable in terms of price, tuition, and fees versus added value after the MBA.
Is EDHEC attracting more North American MBA students?
I used to manage the MBA some time ago, and I remember for one or two years we had a lot of American students. Then it decreased a bit, and now it’s increasing once again. My intuition is that mostly they have chosen Europe for the return on investment — a shorter duration, and lower tuition fees compared to the U.S. And, if you look at the rankings, nowadays European business schools and French business schools are doing rather well.
What trends are you watching? There’s been a lot of discussion around the decline of the GMAT. Do you see demand softening for graduate management education?
Basically, we don’t see any decrease in the demand, but the flow of international students has changed. We have much more demand from European students. We have less demands from China, but it’s probably going to change in the coming months since China has once again opened its borders.
I think it relates to the decline of globalization, so we see that the recruitment is more regional. We have seen a move also from Chinese students to Indian students, and more students from North America. From South America, there is a challenge because of inflation.
A lot of schools now pay a bit less attention to GMAT scores, which may explain the decline somewhat. We have decided not to give up on the GMAT, because I do believe that it’s a good predictor of the success of the students.
But we haven’t seen a sharp decrease in applications, whatever the program. We decided during COVID not to give up on the quality of admissions, so as a logical consequence, we saw a slight decrease in applications in 2020 and 2021. Now we have come back to the level that we enjoyed before the COVID crisis.
What do you see as the value proposition for students choosing EDHEC, particularly those outside of Europe?
I think that especially for the MBA, I hope our positive impact philosophy is something that will mean something to them and educate them to cope with these social challenges that we face. I think that the value proposition also is the return on investment. It seems to me that we offer an outstanding experience for a reasonable cost. France is a country in which education is free, so it’s impossible for us to charge the same tuition fees as our U.S. competitors. We want to be in the global competition, so we have to deliver an outstanding experience, but we have to keep our prices reasonable. And, I mean, our MBA is located on the French Riviera, and lifestyle is part of that as well.
Anything else you’d like to add?
The good thing when you enter the top 10 In the European business school ranking, is that you’re able to talk to schools worldwide that were not listening to you before. Now we are able to partner, in each country in the world, with the two or three best schools — including in the U.S. It’s something for our internationalization which is really valuable.
Last year, we opened a new branch called EDHEC America. We launched a global Bachelor’s in Business Administration a couple of years ago jointly with Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and UCLA in California. We have also opened a Global Master’s in Management with SKK Graduate School of Business at Sungkyunkwan University in Korea and UC Berkeley Haas.
Each program enrolls between 50 to 70 students, and they spend time in France, in Asia and in the U.S. It means that every year we have something like 200 students in California, between Berkeley and UCLA, and we also have some students at Stanford University. We have quite a big ambition in the U.S. These kinds of global programs, which are quite innovative, are more common at the MBA, Executive MBA level, but they are less common at the undergraduate and master’s level.
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