Despite Brexit, UK Business School Education Is Booming

Applications from overseas MBA candidates are surging

When Britain voted to leave the European Union on June 23, 2016, those in the business school market stoked fears of a mass exodus of overseas student and teaching talent, weakened graduate job prospects as firms potentially moved headquarters elsewhere and the visa regime tightened, and a loss of EU funding for research which informs the tuition of degree programs. 

In fact, Brexit has done little to dampen demand for the top MBA courses in the UK, new data suggest. At London Business School applications to the MBA are up 15% year-on-year, says Gareth Howells, executive director of the program. At Imperial College Business School, applications to all courses are up, some of them by more than 50%, claims its dean, Francisco Veloso.

When asked about the impact of Brexit, Cass Business School’s head of recruitment and admissions, Balbir Guru, said: “We have seen a positive impact on the level of diversity in the classroom. Applications from international students for the Full-time MBA have increased year-on-year post-referendum.” 

And it is not just the London schools reporting application growth. Nottingham Business School notes a 25% increase in interest from international students. Overall, two-thirds of MBA programs in the UK grew their number of applications from international applicants last year, said the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC).

One plausible explanation is the fall in the value of the pound since the UK’s EU referendum, making it cheaper to study courses priced in sterling, has made UK schools more attractive. “A fall in the pound has made the UK an even more enticing option compared with alternative study destinations,” Francisco wrote in the Financial Times recently.

“International students can obtain an MBA degree from a prestigious British business school for a much lower price than before, especially when compared with US peer institutions.”

UK business schools may also be riding on the coattails of a broader trend away from US MBA programs to European ones. There is growing pressure to complete courses more quickly and thus spend less money and time out of work. MBAs in Europe can generally be completed 50% more quickly than in the US. “Non-US programs are thriving,” says Sangeet Chowfla, GMAC president, with applications to US schools conversely falling for three years on the trot. 

Many UK schools are, of course, exceptionally well-regarded institutions, ranked highly in multiple league tables and with a reputation for teaching excellence and good career prospects. As Helen Foley, senior manager of visa compliance at LBS, says: “People who apply to LBS aren’t deterred by paperwork or the visa application process. They’re interested in enhancing their education and gaining experience at a top business school.”

Olly Nguyen, president of the LBS Student Association, says students are unsettled by Brexit, but they also recognize the advantage of obtaining an international network in London, a commercial hub. “Global careers will still exist,” he says. Recent announcements that large employers including Amazon will open new offices in London and hire more UK staff are encouraging. 

There are other signs of growth in the UK business education market. University College London (UCL), one of the UK’s top universities, recently opened a school of management in the UK capital. King’s College London, meanwhile, this year will officially launch a business school with a London campus. 

This rather rosy picture runs contrary to another narrative: Brexit has made the UK less attractive to overseas students. A recent survey by 1,500 business school students of 85 nationalities by CarringtonCrisp found that 28% of them were less likely to consider studying in the UK following Brexit. Another survey last year by the Chartered Association of Business Schools found that around 45% of UK business schools expect to see a decline in EU student applications because of Brexit.

We have been here before. The UK scrapped a post-study work visa in 2012 which allowed international students to stay in the country for up to two years while they searched for jobs. That legislative move was widely blamed for a dramatic fall in Indian candidates applying to places at UK universities. “We noticed a big drop off [in applications] in certain parts of the world,” admits Alexander Pepper, a management professor at the London School of Economics. 

But on the whole, it would seem that applications from overseas business school candidates have recovered, and are in some cases surging.  

Most UK business schools have taken steps to reaffirm their commitment to the internationality that is the hallmark of their programs. Foley says that LBS is offering support to students for visa applications through webinars and other information sessions. 

Other schools say that making their programs more flexible, with a range of study formats and customizable lengths, is attracting more international students. 

Andrew Crisp, a business school branding expert, advises lobbying collectively for changes to visa regulations, and emphasising unique strengths in school marketing material, such as a positive lifestyle or economy associated with their location. 

Olly at LBS is optimistic: “There have been lots of historic crises; life goes on,” he says.

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