Ekaterina Li will step on campus for her full-time MBA at Imperial College Business School in London in September this year.
Working in finance in Moscow, when Ekaterina was weighing up different business schools for her MBA, she didn’t consider any within Russia itself. She knew some local schools offered more affordable, good-quality programs, but still she looked elsewhere.
Why? “In Moscow,” she says, “big companies pay attention not only to your MBA qualification but also the school you obtained it from.
“It may be that you can get the best education in the world in some Moscow-based business schools but, as these schools do not appear in international rankings, their programs are unknown outside of the education sector.”
While Russian business schools are taking steps to internationalize, Russians after a full-time MBA experience are still looking to study abroad.
According to data from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC)—owner of the GMAT—94% of the 1,752 GMAT tests taken by Russian citizens in 2017 were sent to business schools outside Russia. 42% were sent to the US; 11% to the UK; 10% to France.
And many of those test takers are women. In four out of the five past years, GMAC says, more Russian women took GMAT tests than Russian men. In 2015, it was a 50/50 split.
It’s not easy. Russian students pay much more than they would domestically and often have to take additional language tests to get accepted onto international MBA programs—Ekaterina had to take out a loan and ask her family for financial support.
Yet Ekaterina’s decision was less about leaving Russia and more about attending a business school that would give her access to a wider range of career opportunities—a risk worth taking, she says. Her plan is to stay in the UK for six months after graduation—as her visa permits—before returning to Russia.
“I see this as like a Russian soccer player deciding to play for an English soccer club and then bringing that experience back to the national team,” she says. “Some might call it unpatriotic, but gaining skills from international experience benefits the team in the long-run.”
Although several Russian business schools offer part-time MBA programs, the MBA degree is not officially recognized by the Russian state. The full-time MBA in Russia barely exists. The lack of globally-ranked, globally-recognized MBA programs means that, even for students like Ekaterina who see their future in Russia after graduation, an MBA abroad is a stronger option.
For students like Marianna Alekseeva, who’s after an international career, doing an MBA program abroad is almost a necessity. Originally from Yakutia (Republic of Sakha), in the easternmost part of Russia, Marianna moved to Saint Petersburg to start her career in the technology industry. Last year, she joined the HEC Paris MBA class of 2019. Like Ekaterina, she didn’t consider any MBA programs in Russia.
“The majority of people I know have decided to pursue their MBAs abroad,” she says. “That’s mainly because of the relative infancy of business education in Russia, where local schools struggle to attract a diverse and international student body.
“The entire concept of an MBA degree only developed in Russia less than 20 years ago, and there are just a few accredited institutions offering MBA programs. On the other hand, in Western Europe and the United States, the MBA is a well-established and recognized brand with more than a century-long history.
“Like many students, I view an MBA as a long-term investment in my future, so I only considered internationally-recognized schools with a proven track record and a stellar reputation amongst the business community and potential employers.” HEC Paris—ranked among the best schools in the world and with a network of 57,000 alumni in 135 countries—seemed a good fit.
Marianna has already seen her career progress; she’s currently interning at Google. “The main reason why I’m not considering going back to Russia is that there are very few tech companies with headquarters there, compared to in Western Europe,” she says. “And I want to be part of designing and shaping the future of a company, rather than implementing predefined decisions within a region.”
Elena Budanova is another Russian businesswoman looking to start a career in tech in Europe. To do so, she’s enrolled on the full-time MBA at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands.
“I was looking for an international experience, a diverse group of students I can learn from, and a global perspective to business and society,” Elena explains. “The Netherlands is the perfect place to be, and where I plan to stay.”
What is the future for business education in Russia? For Elena, there’s a lot of work to be done. While business schools in Russia have plenty of potential, she says schools will only improve their offering by further integrating with the global marketplace—something Russian schools are striving to do.
Marianna agrees. “Potential students choose a program based on the relevance of the curriculum to meet their needs; the reputation of the professors, strength of the alumni network; the connections of the career services with potential employers; and global rankings,” she says.
“I’m sure Russian schools are capable of offering compelling curricula and attracting exceptional candidates, but I think they still have a lot to improve on in other areas.”