By Sharon Shinn
One of the best ways for business schools to create extraordinary opportunities for students and gain global visibility for themselves is to join academic networks of international institutions. Those were the goals for the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) in Belgium, when it initiated the Quantitative Techniques for Economics and Management alliance, or QTEM.
“We envisioned the network as a way that member schools and corporate partners could provide top students with opportunities to take courses and go on internships in locations around the world,” says Bruno van Pottelsberghe, dean of the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management. Van Pottelsberghe, who is the initiator and chairman of the QTEM network, also is a full professor at the school and holds the Solvay SA Chair of Innovation. “We chose to focus on analytics and economics to leverage our own strengths and to help make all partner schools more prominent players on the global stage.”
Solvay began laying the groundwork for the network more than a year in advance, fist raising about €400,000 (about US$440,000) to get the project off the gound, then reaching out to other schools. In 2012, the network was launched with fie members: Solvay, BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo, HEC Lausanne in Switzerland, Universiteit van Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Today there are 21 academic members in countries that stretch from Russia to Canada, and from Finland to Australia, as well as 13 corporate partners—and the network is still growing.
“We leverage complementarities among schools, so we look for institutions that match our analytical focus and bring something a little different from all the other members,” says van Pottelsberghe. Each new school must offer strong quantitative and analytical coursework—delivered in English—and have a research orientation. Schools also must have excellent reputations in their own countries, so international and national accreditations and rankings are important considerations.
In addition, schools must have the resources and personnel to manage QTEM involvement. Says van Pottelsberghe, “At the minimum, their deans must be excited about the network, because unless deans are fully committed, the partnership won’t be successful. It’s also preferable if schools have administrators who are in charge of international student exchange programs and corporate alliances, because these activities are key to securing a successful partnership.”
A school that is interested in joining QTEM must submit a five-page application that is reviewed by representatives from five current members. If the Selection Committee recommends that the school be admitted, the proposal is submitted to all the member deans and one executive who represents all the corporate members; they participate in a blind voting scheme. The school is admitted if 75 percent vote yes.
Each member school is required to bring along corporate partners, who participate in QTEM in various ways. They provide funding for QTEM through membership fees, they offer job and internship opportunities to students, and they provide challenging problems that students work on in various individual or group project settings.
“The corporate members are valuable to the network because they provide our students access to real-world business situations around the globe,” says van Pottelsberghe. “But we believe the corporations also receive excellent benefits from the partnership as they attain visibility through our website and access to elite students.”
Every school within the network can select a maximum of 20 students to be admitted into QTEM every year. To be considered, students must have scored at least 650 on the GMAT; they must have accumulated impressive academic credentials, while taking a high number of analytical courses; and they must be approved by a panel of academic and corporate members.
Students can earn their QTEM degrees only if they also have received degrees from their home universities. They are expected to have completed two or more international experiences by the time they graduate, as well as an internship. The international experiences might be two exchanges with other schools within the network, or one exchange with another school and an internship at an international company.
“For instance, a student from Waseda University in Japan might complete one exchange at Monash University in Australia and another one at HEC Lausanne in Switzerland before interning at a company in Singapore,” says van Pottelsberghe. “That’s a beautiful illustration of the power of the network.
While the academic exchanges are generally a semester, students can fulfill one international requirement by completing a series of one-week summer school programs at several schools. For instance, a student might spend four weeks in Europe, taking one-week courses with four QTEM schools.
Students pay their travel and lodging expenses for the international exchanges, but they have no additional tuition costs associated with the QTEM degree, because the exchanges are set up to be reciprocal.
“We consider the international aspect of QTEM to be as essential as the analytical focus,” says van Pottelsberghe. “Our goal is to create a global tribe of ambitious students who have open minds and excellent analytical competencies and who want to use these skills to create a better world.”
To make the QTEM experience as easy as possible for the academic partners, most of the administration is handled by a small staff—called the QTEaM—located at the Université Libre de Bruxelles campus, within the Solvay Brussels School. In the 2016–2017 academic year, the QTEaM coordinated about 200 student exchanges. The determination of which students go where depends heavily on how they have scored on GMAT tests and performed academically at their home institutions. Schools send students and they receive students.
The QTEaM staff members first gather the names and GMAT scores of all the QTEM students selected for the year; then they organize the schools by the students’ average GMAT scores. All students have already submitted lists of other schools they would like to attend within the network. The first student from the first school gets first pick of his or her international destination; then the first student from the second school; and so on. Each member school agrees to welcome a maximum of 25 students, and so far the network has always been able to reconcile supply and demand.
Internships are handled slightly differently, because QTEM relies on an internal “internship market.” Corporations submit information about the internships they offer and whether they are for two or four months. The information is distributed to students, who are in charge of contacting the companies where they would like to intern. Once interviews are conducted, the students and the companies make the final decisions about where the students will work.
The QTEM staff also tracks the success rates of students in the network. According to van Pottelsberghe, “We look at the grade distributions for QTEM students, and they generally are in the top 15 percentile, at home or abroad.”
Because the alliance has produced only a small number of QTEM graduates so far, there isn’t data yet on job placement rates. However, all QTEM students have access to placement resources not only at their home universities, but also at the schools they have visited. “That gives them an edge in the job market,” notes van Pottelsberghe.
While QTEM members are distributed around the globe, they gather together at least once a year at the annual graduation ceremony hosted in the fall by one of the member schools. Because all of the academic members are present at this event, the deans use this time to make key decisions about strategy and governance.
“At the same time, we hold an annual conference for corporate partners,” says van Pottelsberghe. “This year’s theme will be on the use of digital tools to improve operations, and it will take place at HEC Lausanne. Students are welcome to attend, and corporate reps are eager to meet them.”
For schools that are considering creating their own networks, van Pottelsberghe points out that it always takes more time and resources than they might expect. “They have to be very well-prepared before they launch. They should start with a well-defined concept so that they can talk about it concisely and professionally when they invite other deans to join. Otherwise—as with any innovation or change project—the targeted institution’s immune defense system wakes up and sends out its antibodies to resist!”
Schools also have to be aware of the challenges of working with a large number of academic institutions, as they all have different schedules, legal constraints, and requirements. For instance, while most of the QTEM schools run 18- to 24-month programs, some offer only one-year master’s degree programs. Says van Pottelsberghe, “Any school that wants to participate in a similar network must be flexible with its own rules—and remember that the benefits always outweigh the challenges.”
Finally, schools that want to create or join networks should look at the strategic positioning of their own universities. “At Solvay, we decided to focus on our global, analytical, and multidisciplinary strengths and seek out schools that enjoy a similar positioning and could contribute to the network,” he says. “The motto of Belgium is ‘Unity makes strength.’ We made that the basic idea behind QTEM as well.”
Now that the QTEM network has been in place for nearly five years, its members are looking ahead, and one key goal is to keep expanding the network. Currently, only a few member schools have 20 students in the process of completing the QTEM program, but the numbers are growing steadily at all the other schools. For instance, during Solvay’s most recent round of applications, 36 students applied and 18 were accepted.
“Eventually, we aim to have 40 academic partners sending about 700 students into the network each year,” says van Pottelsberghe. “As we are not a Eurocentric organization, we are expanding primarily outside Europe and currently looking to bring in partners from North America, Latin America, and India.”
In addition, QTEM will launch its alumni network this year, as it is starting to build its base of graduates. In early 2014, four students graduated; in 2016, the number was close to 50, and van Pottelsberghe expects about 90 to graduate this November. “We aim at creating a global alliance of people who are connected to universities, corporations, and to each other, and we believe the alumni network will facilitate those connections,” he says.
But member schools have an even more ambitious goal: bringing the network to international prominence. Says van Pottelsberghe, “At the moment, if someone asks students what schools they would dream of getting a degree from, they might mention four or five elite institutions around the world. Ten years from now, we want our QTEM network to be part of that conversation. In every school, there are exceptional students, and those are the ones we want to bring to the forefront through our international web of like-minded institutions.”