Interview with Philippe Haspeslagh

In the framework of the partnership between Vlerick and Onlysalesjob, we were pleased to welcome Philippe Haspeslagh in our offices. We asked him a few questions about business schools, education and entrepreneurship in Belgium. Please find hereunder the full interview together with the audio files

Mr Haspeslagh, could you please introduce yourself and tell us about your position at Vlerick?

Good morning, I am the dean of Vlerick, an independent business school that has two sponsors, the University of Leuven and the University of Gent.

Vlerick has four values: “openess, vitality, innovation and enterprise”. Could you comment on the last two?

The origin of Vlerick is of course the Flemish midsize company entrepreneurship. I dare say this entrepreneurial spirit is part of our genes and we also endeavour to apply it to large companies including multinationals. This explains that we invest a lot in innovation including, business model innovation and new technologies. At Vlerick we also want to cultivate that entrepreneurial spirit and our new campus in Brussels is a small recent example of this. Above all we strive to bring that entrepreneurial spirit to larger organizations where it is often lacking. What is unique about Vlerick, compared to other business schools, is the weight it gives to practice. We aim to put the theory into practice. There are few business schools where all professors know how to lead company workshops. I refer not only to visiting professors from the outside world, but also to professors from our own faculty. From this point of view, we are really different from a business school integrated in a “classical” university.

What are the requirements for admission to a Master at Vlerick these days?

Our masters are postgraduate, or second masters, which not only require a 'solid' initial master degree in psychology, management, economics or law, but also to pass a test of logic (that everyone with this kind of degree is expected to pass). A candidate will also be interviewed in order to assess his motivation and interest for these studies, his career objectives, and also what he has achieved during his studies, for example in sports organization or other. The aim is to better assess a candidate’s personality.

In what respect is it actually necessary to follow a second master?

During our university studies, we are most of the time connected with people from the same town, who go to the same university, who undertake the same studies, whether psychology, law or economics. What is fascinating in a postgraduate degree is to be suddenly confronted, as a lawyer for instance, to the point of view of an economist or a psychologist who require that the human aspect of things also be taken into account or to have to collaborate with a possibly more Cartesian and logical scientist. Over and above immersed in an international environment, with people from different countries, backgrounds and values. This confrontation to a much more diverse world than that in which we were brought up in, appears to me to be a major benefit, which will prepare graduates to work in the work environment of the future in the context of increasingly international society.

Is it worth today to make an MBA?

I am convinced of that! Thirty years ago, when I started an MBA, there were very few MBAs. It was an important differentiation factor. Even today, many people who have studied engineering, chemistry, medicine or psychology and are in managerial positions in the business world, do not have the basic managerial skills. In my opinion, for these people in order to accelerate their careers or consolidate what they have learned after a few years of work, or for part-time MBA or executives after say ten years of work, an MBA, whether full-time or part-time, is as relevant as thirty years ago. I also think an MBA not only leads towards the business world but also to nonprofit organisations for instance as running an hospital or large NGOs is as complex as running a business.

How would you compare Vlerick with Solvay business school?

I would say that Solvay is the equivalent of the University of Leuven, UCL and others i.e. primarily a school that has great undergraduate and commercial engineering academic courses. Part of Solvay is a business school while Vlerick is exclusively a business school. We are therefore complementary. 20% of our activities are the same but not more. In fact I think the reference for Solvay is Leuven and Louvain.

In case I would like to register in a business school, which one would you recommend to a Flemish or a French speaking student?

Solvay has qualities, specialties that Vlerick will never have: for example their financial and econometrics courses, their newly created very specialized masters in Finance meet high academic standards. Vlerick on the other hand is a business school that leads to more general management. Our Master in Finance is primarily intended for people who aspire to a corporate finance position. It is not intended for those who want to become traders, or to go into technical finance. Again I think there is a complementarity. To a Flemish student I would say 'do your master at Vlerick and your MBA abroad'. I would advise a French speaker to spend a year with us and kill two birds with one stone: understand another part of the country and acquire a solid education. This being said I could say the opposite to a Flemish student and advise him to enroll at Solvay.

Two years ago Vlerick opened a campus in Brussels. What was the reason ?

In fact, Brussels is the only brand in Belgium that has a dimension abroad. Vlerick has the ambition of being truly international and we are somewhat too big, certainly for Flanders, perhaps also for Belgium. I think Brussels is a magnet not only for international students but also for international companies as well as for recruitment and partnerships with other schools.

After Gent, Leuven, Sint-Petersbourg and now Brussels, what is the next step for Vlerick?

In strategy there is a principle called 'focus'. At some point, we need to go deeper. We invested in bricks but the real investments are no longer in this area but in content and in technology. Our world is indeed moving towards a world called 'blended learning', i.e. a combination of discussions in a lecture hall with e-learning. Vlerick is also changing. We will increasingly provide our students all the formal course content in advance i.e. before they come to our campus and use classroom time for discussions, case studies etc ... People have less time available to attend classes, and it is important that we adapt ourselves. From this point of view the proportion of time required in the campus is different. To come back to the next step, I think the future is not to establish new campuses. The future is to make alliances with other high quality business schools and agree on programs. All this in order to bring professors and students in a new environment that is more international without having to add bricks elsewhere in the world.

How do you think the university of tomorrow will look like?

First of all I think it will be more flexible and modular. One of the disadvantages in Europe, in comparison to the Anglo-Saxon countries, is that first year students virtually need to know what job they will want to do after their studies. The university curriculum is designed in line with what you want to become later. One starts medicine, one ends as a medical doctor. One starts law, one ends as a lawyer. I think it will evolve so as to enable real choices to be deferred until a bit later. Secondly, there is always the choice between, on one hand, acquiring a general education which gives a general culture and, on the other hand, learning something more applied, leading faster to a job. The Corporate world can really use people who are technically trained for specific applications. While at the human level, it is rewarding to first acquire a more general culture. Each individual will have to make choices and I think that the university education will be a mix of e-learning and “in class education” consisting of modular programs in which the student will choose their menu. My wish is that the university of tomorrow exists not only for young people but also for older people so that they can question themselves and possibly change their career path.

E-learning and e-university, is this the future?

E-learning is well suited to certain things, such as learning theory, accounting or technical things. But dialogue , discussions, group work and concrete case studies are missing. I think the future belongs to the so-called 'blended learning' in which we try to combine the two. That means, not taking time in class for lectures. In this system the students do the theoretical work by themselves and use the time in class for practical cases, reflection and discussions.

According to the Financial Times, Vlerick was ranked 81st among the business schools in 2014. Is it realistic to imagine a Belgian business school in the top ten of this ranking, in competition with 7 American universities?

First of all there are two rankings: a general ranking, which refers to all activities and in which we are ranked 16th. There is also a specific ranking for full time MBAs were we are ranked around the 90th spot. In this specific ranking I think we will never reach the top because much of this ranking, at least 30%, is related to the financial income of graduates after three years and the evolution thereof. So a school that enrolls Indian MBAs and knows how to place them in Wall Street will always be better ranked. This being said, what is important for us is our position in relation to other European schools because a student chooses whether to go to the US, or to stay in Europe or to go Asia. So for us, the very good European schools are our benchmark. Apart from those which are out of reach - INSEAD, London Business School, LSE – Around 15 schools think they can be part of the top 10. We are among them.

Vlerick is a very important entrepreneur in Belgium. What do you think about the entrepreneur spirit among the young student generation in Belgium? Do you see an evolution over the last few years?

Two attitudes simultaneously. On the one hand, I see lots of youths who try to settle by finding a civil servant job or at least a job offering a safety net. On the other hand I have never seen so many young people trying to start something up. Obviously thanks to technological developments, creating businesses with fewer resources is now possible, whether in application development or otherwise. It is like a glass half full or half empty. If we put on rose-colored glasses we see a lot of things that were not seen before, but if you look at the whole, there is indeed uncertainty.

Would you advise young Belgian students with good ideas in new technologies to go to the Silicon Valley and attempt the American dream?

This is true for the very ambitious, for those who have all the talent and skills to make it happen! The best advice is to dare. In Europe, we have to manage to change mentalities and get closer to the spirit that prevails in the United States. This means to have another vision of the person who dares something and fails. It is critical not to see this as a failure but watch it positively as an experience, consider that person as someone who has energy and initiative and not as someone who has failed. In my opinion we need to change our perception towards risk taking and we must dare to take initiatives. I learned more from initiatives I have taken and were unsuccessful than from the successful ones which contribute to my pension today.

As a conclusion, what message would you like to convey to those who are still hesitating to enrol by Vlerick?

One is often reluctant to continue our studies past a first master because the State will then no longer pay the bill. In schools like Solvay or Vlerick, masters and MBAs are expensive. However, we should see this as an investment with a payback after 2 or 3 years and personal enrichment is repaid a thousand times. Unlike in other countries, people in Belgium are reluctant to invest because they are used to a State financial contribution for their school education. We should take the risk of borrowing. There are scholarships, there are part-time jobs. Critical is to invest in oneself and not to wait for the government to pay for everything. If you have a good degree, if you are young and dynamic and you dream of being selected by a major FMCG to start a training program, then think about investing in yourself and doing a marketing master for example. A master which not only trains you in marketing techniques but also in sales, in sales techniques, negotiation skills and in everything in order to be ready to start quickly on the ground. With a master such as Vlerick you are well equiped to find the job of your dreams.