Fernanda Juárez Trevino
Fernanda Juárez Trevino has pursued her aim of forging links with fellow students via the virtual foreign study option © Javier Luengo

International experience is “extremely valuable” to Fernanda Juárez Trevino, a Mexican student on the Bachelor of Business Administration at Esade business school in Barcelona. “One of the reasons I chose to study at Esade was the opportunity to share classes and meet people from all over the world and broaden my thinking,” she says.

At its height, Covid-19 put paid to most foreign exchange programmes, through which students can spend a semester at a business school in another country. And, while some of these are resuming, cross-border travel remains challenging and uncertain as the pandemic continues.

But Trevino, who wants to pursue a career in investment banking, is building her international experience another way: by enrolling on two online courses in finance and quantitative analysis — one at SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan, Italy, and the other at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland.

“I’ve been able to make connections with both international and local students in the classes,” she says. “It’s also giving me a feel for what it’s like to take classes from other top business schools with high-level professors — and all from the comfort of my own home.”

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Trevino’s virtual foreign study option has been made possible by the European Common Online Learning (Ecol), a new grouping of eight business schools. The other five members are Aalto University School of Business in Finland, Copenhagen Business School, Rotterdam School of Management, HEC Paris and Vienna University of Economics and Business.

The schools agreed in May this year to work together to provide an online international experience for undergraduate students unable to travel because of Covid-19. This virtual option will continue even when in-person exchange programmes resume in full, says Josep Franch, Esade’s dean.

“The idea was to provide not a substitute for the experience of going to another campus, but a complementary experience that would allow you to enrich your international exposure in other ways,” Prof Franch says. “We have always placed a very high value on the exchange experience and when we speak to recruiters, they tell us it is also very important to them.”

For this first, trial, year, each member school is selecting and enrolling about 25 students on a roster of 48 existing online elective courses run by their partners, with subjects ranging from international business and economics to sustainability and inclusion. Eligible courses must be credit-bearing, delivered in English and offer opportunities to interact and work in teams with fellow students.

Ecol aims to build “a common online curriculum that can be expanded and developed over time”. Prof Franch says he can envisage the initiative being extended to postgraduate programmes, to other business schools and perhaps even being the basis for a full degree programme.

“It’s just a trial this year and we will have to evaluate the results,” he says, “but, thinking long term, why not establish a full degree or certificate based on this concept?”

Collaboration is becoming the new normal, according to a recent report by consultancy CarringtonCrisp, which notes: “Co-creating new programmes and new approaches to learning will become commonplace.” Europeans are familiar with jointly creating common standards and harmonising policies and practices. Earlier this year, for example, the Federation of European Academies of Medicine discussed the harmonisation of doctoral training and a potential EU-wide common curriculum to simplify medical students’ transition from classroom to hospital.

The EU-initiated Bologna process, which dates back to 1999, transformed European higher and business school education by ensuring comparability in the standards of European degrees, in part to promote greater student mobility between nations. It is no coincidence that the Ecol members were already connected through Cems, one of the world’s oldest business school networks, which began as a partnership of four European schools in 1988. Cems now represents more than 30 business schools, with 1,300 students admitted each year to study a common masters in management curriculum at a minimum of two schools, supplemented by an internship at a partner company.

The Qtem network of business schools, with interests in quantitative techniques for economics and management, has its origins at Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management and offers a masters programme. European schools also spearheaded the more recent Fome alliance, which has a goal of creating a new standard for online learning through collaborative pedagogy.

But the process of harmonisation is not straightforward, admits Felicitas Strittmatter, a programme manager in student mobility services at Switzerland’s University of St Gallen which, before Ecol, had already been piloting a virtual option to study abroad with Vienna University of Economics and Business and Copenhagen Business School. “It’s quite challenging to pull it all together as different electives at different schools offer different numbers of credits and have different academic term dates,” she says.

She adds, however, that students like the flexibility of the online exchange, which also provides an impression of what it is like to study at another business school in another country. She says the virtual option also appeals to students who work part time and cannot afford to give up their job to study abroad for a semester. “Before the pandemic, our travel exchange experiences involved all the costs of travelling and living in another country,” she says. “Now, students can enjoy an international experience that we hadn’t thought of before.”

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