I was in Lyon, France, when it happened. In a sweltering hot hotel room—the result of a hastily-booked trip to the European soccer championships—I sat on one of two beds lined up against a bare white wall. On an old television set, I watched the blurry coverage from back home.
There was Nigel Farage—mission accomplished. There was a former National Front foot-soldier celebrating on breakfast TV. There was Theresa May looking somber. There were wide-eyed Remainers posting on Twitter. If it wasn’t for the undereducated, they said. If it wasn’t for the elderly.
A continental breakfast. Then, a flight home to a nation divided. Would continental Europe ever welcome me back?
UK business schools had pretty much all declared opposition to the idea of Brexit.
Before June 23rd 2016, Universities UK, an organization that represents the country’s university leaders, said that a Britain outside the EU would mean fewer EU students, fewer jobs, and less money. The 125,000 EU students in the UK—who generate over $3 billion for the economy and create thousands of jobs—were at risk of being put off.
Nigel Driffield, a senior professor at Warwick Business School, said Brexit would be a ‘disaster’ for UK business schools. London Business School’s former dean, Andrew Likierman, called Brexit ‘bad news’.
Before the EU Referendum, the business schools I spoke to feared a ‘Yes’ vote would mean less foreign investment into the UK, fewer high-end jobs, fewer EU students, fewer UK students, less research funding, and an exodus of staff.
Uncertainty would turn applicants away from the UK schools and towards mainland Europe. MBA students hated Brexit; the diversity of business schools was at risk; the future of UK business schools was at risk.
When the vote came in and Brexit happened, business schools’ messaging predictably changed. Brexit was workable; it wouldn’t have a major impact; it was business as usual.
These communications rang a hollow note. Let’s make one thing clear: no British business school has ever come out and said Brexit is a good thing.
Business schools’ initial concerns were soon backed up by data. In December 2016, GMAC surveyed over 1,000 non-UK GMAT test takers who had sent at least one score to a UK business school. 45% said Brexit made them less likely to study in the UK.
Another 2016 survey by the Chartered Association of Business Schools (CABS) found around 45% of UK business schools expected to see a decline in EU student applications because of Brexit. Still, in October 2017, a study by CarringtonCrisp found 28% of a survey of 1,500 prospective students were less likely to study in the UK following the Brexit vote.
After two years, and countless trips to Brussels and back, we have a date. The UK is set to leave the EU on March 29th, 2019. Business schools in the UK are not singing Brexit’s praises. But they’re not hanging empty from a Dover cliff edge either.
At least for now, the fears have not been realized. A falling pound has helped make UK-based MBA programs relatively cheaper, and students are still coming to Britain's shores.
In October, Balbir Guru, head of MBA recruitment and admissions at Cass Business School, said she’d seen more international applications and more diversity in the classroom since Brexit. Cass, Imperial, and Nottingham Business School all reported increased applications.
June 2018, and Stephen Bach, dean of King’s Business School, tells me that programs are oversubscribed. John Colley, associate dean for the MBA at Warwick Business School, says applications went up by 80% after the Brexit vote, and another 12% already this year. The surge in demand means Warwick will be running two classes of full-time MBA students for the first time in 2018.
While mainland European business school claim to have profited from Brexit, British business schools remain an attractive proposition. Despite the Brexit vote, around two-thirds (65%) of masters and MBA programs in the UK have seen international demand grow.
A new study by CarringtonCrisp, released this month, recorded that the popularity of the UK as a study destination has gone up post-Brexit. The study shows the UK has increased its popularity among international business students by almost 10% in the past year.
In every battle, there are casualties. Zoe Radnor, dean of the University of Leicester School of Business, says she’s lost about half a dozen staff since Brexit. Applications from EU staff and EU applicants have also gone down.
There are realistic fears over research funding—UK management research funding has already fallen by one-quarter over the past six years. UK students are also looking elsewhere. According to GMAC, fewer than half of MBA (42%) and business master’s programs (29%) have reported growth in domestic applications since Brexit.
UK careers have taken a hit. One Warwick Business School MBA graduate I spoke to said her international classmates had been forced to accept lower-paid, lower-grade jobs than they had expected after the EU Referendum. Post-Brexit, few were staying in the UK.
But not every MBA student comes to a UK business school to pursue a career in the UK anyway. UK business schools set students up for careers on a global scale. When I raised the topic with Stuart Robinson, director of the MBA program at the University of Exeter Business School, he hit back: “Why would a Chinese student care about Brexit?”
GMAC figures show that 90% of MBA applications and 97% of business master’s applications to the UK come from internationals. Oxford; Cambridge; LBS; the British brands transcend the British Isles, and business schools know it.
They know that building their brands beyond Britain is key to their current and future success. Cass Business School opened its Dubai campus back in 2007. The University of Leicester School of Business boasts global centers, located across Southern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Lancaster University’s revamped EMBA program is delivered in the UK, Ghana, and Malaysia.
Along with global campuses, online learning brings easy brand access to the international market. Birmingham Business School’s Online MBA was the first 100%-online MBA to be accredited by AMBA, with students tapping into Birmingham’s program from remote locations across the globe. After Brexit, across both Birmingham’s Online MBA and MSc International Business, 86 nationalities were represented in the class.
Brexit could yet have a severe effect on business education in the UK. But let’s face it: if you take Harvard out of Massachusetts, people are still going to want to go to Harvard.
The same can be said of many of Britain’s big brand schools. Whatever the effect of Brexit may be, brand building can beat it.