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MBA In UK: Business Education Hubs Emerge Outside UK Capital

The UK is becoming a cluster of clusters of business education. By looking outside of London and England, managers can find new innovation hubs with an increasingly global focus.

Sun Dec 7 2014

Strathclyde Business School is a darling of Glasgow’s academic community. Melissa McCrindle, the recruitment officer tasked with growing its international stock, is proud of her Scottish location and culture.

She believes Strathclyde can compete on a global stage both because of its promising accreditation status and strong connections to industry. This includes links to Scotch companies including Weir Group, the engineering firm, and class cohorts which are 80% non-UK. It has international centres from Switzerland and Greece to Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.

“Business Schools, regardless of their location, can’t afford to rest on their laurels,” Melissa says.

Strathclyde demonstrates how business schools can benefit from both strong connections to one location and the ability to build new programs in others.

Now ranked in the top-75 globally, its one-year MBA was the first to be introduced in the UK in 1966. But, like many of Scotland’s universities, it has tended to fade into the background.

The so-called “golden triangle” of institutions clustered around London, Cambridge and Oxford in England are seemingly the stars of the show, according to Denis Fischbacher-Smith, deputy head of Glasgow’s Adam Smith Business School.

But he says there is no reason why Scotland cannot compete on the international stage. “Given its relatively small population and the number of businesses that are located in Scotland, the business schools located here do extremely well,” Denis says.

The strength of the UK as a business destination means that it attracts an increasing portion of the world’s globally mobile business students. According to data from the Graduate Management Admissions Council, which administers the GMAT business school entrance exam, the UK receives the second largest share of test scores, behind only the United States.

Yet for decades students have been more attracted to studying at schools in London and its surrounding metropolitan areas.

This has much to do with the city’s reputation as a European financial and business hub.

The number of major companies headquartered in a region has a symbolic relationship with its business schools’ growth, says Denis. “It is no coincidence that major cities such as Boston… Have a high concentration of high quality business schools.”

Of the 13 ranked in the UK and Ireland by the FT’s Global MBA rankings, only Strathclyde and Ireland’s Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School are non-England based.

But British business schools are finding a value in expanding their operations. The business management map of the UK has become a group of clusters from Manchester to Edinburgh and from Dublin to Cardiff.

At the same time the UK government has been trying to promote the cities outside of London as potential business and innovation hubs. Infrastructure to improve travel between cities is in the pipeline. London to Cambridge by train, for example, can already be completed in 45 minutes.

Dublin, Ireland’s capital city, has seen a cadre of technology companies emerge. Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and Google all have offices in the city. Scotland’s capital Edinburgh is home to large listed financial services groups. 

The University of Edinburgh Business School (UEBS) is less than a 30 minute walk from Royal Bank of Scotland Group’s headquarters. In the shadow of the city’s famous castle, the school boasts 11 postgraduate programs.

“Scotland has long punched above its weight as a small country when it comes to education,” says Professor Ian Clarke, UEBS’ dean.

Its full-time MBA, which costs £27,100 in fees, can be completed in 12 or 16 months.

Application numbers are up 8% overall this year and much of that growth is being driven by interest from the financial sector, including clients from ratings agency Moody’s and Standard Life, the insurer.

Many students are also from outside Scotland. The school draws executives from cities including Shanghai, Delhi and New York. “[It] gives the business school a really international feel,” Ian says.

The UK’s education market, however, is becoming increasingly crowded. UEBS has to compete with not just other Scottish schools Strathclyde and Adam Smith as well as Edinburgh Napier University, but a host of northern-England MBA programs including at Durham University and the University of Manchester.

“Ever more institutions have begun to focus on business education,” says Ian.

Ireland is one of the UK markets that is ripe for growth. A new business school of Trinity College Dublin – Trinity Business School – is set to be launched in 2017.

Patrick Prendergast, the university’s president, has secured up to €20 million from prominent Irish entrepreneurs to help fund its construction and development.

It will compete with the Irish Management Institute, an executive education specialist, and Michael Smurfit, both based in Dublin.

Patrick envisages a business school with a unique focus on entrepreneurship and innovation. He hopes to develop a new mind-set among students – one focused on creating new MBA jobs as much as it is about finding current ones.

“It’s a business school [that will be] integral to the college’s whole strategy,” he says.

Differentiating in this way to stand out in a crowd has become increasingly important. This is a view shared by many of the UK’s up-and-coming business schools.

“No matter where business schools are based in the UK, they all have the same challenge of differentiating,” says Melissa at Strathclyde.

The Glaswegian school prides itself on its one-year MBA, which will cost £28,000 in tuition in the 2015-16 academic year, but has adapted its strategy to cater for the changing needs of businesses.

It runs a number of specialized master’s degrees – such as the executive master in hospitality which is run jointly with schools in Switzerland and the US – and plans to launch an MSc in leadership that is related to urbanization in 2015.

“We’ve continued to invest and innovate,” says Melissa. “This year has seen a significant rise in the number of students [applying] to our masters programs,” she adds.

Becoming more international is central to Strathclyde’s strategy. It has eight different international centres, many clustered in the United Arab Emirates.

“Everything [that is] taught is designed around an international agenda,” says Melissa.

A stone’s throw away at the University of Glasgow, the Adam Smith business school has about 3,000 international students under its roof.

Its MBA, which costs up to £22,600 in tuition, can be completed in 12 months full-time or 36 to 48 months part-time.

Named after the famous Scottish philosopher who pioneered the concept of a political economy, Adam Smith has seen substantial growth in applications. Business is booming. So much so that it has had to increase entry requirements, according to Denis, with about 10 students competing for a single spot.

He describes this global focus as his “internationalisation agenda”. Approximately 8,169 of Adam Smith’s 17,127 alumni are working overseas.

But he does not think Scottish business schools develop unique characteristics that are derived from their locations. Rather, he says schools become distinctive as a function of their academics’ profiles and research, and the communities they engage with.

Irish educators hope to turn Dublin in particular into an international education hub.

Patrick wants to broaden Trinity’s reach by lifting the non-EU proportion of students from about 8% in 2014 to 18%. “That will increasingly cosmopolitanize trinity,” he says.

But one innovation set to define UK business education is the onset of online learning. Technology is opening up new global audiences. This is seen as a way for the UK to place itself onto the world stage.

“The move to online provision is… Likely to see terrestrially based programs enhanced by input developed with international partners,” says Denis at Adam Smith.

He believes the challenge for Scottish schools is understanding the extent to which internet-based learning will shift the balance of provision away from bricks-and-mortar programs.

However, for many the tech is a distinct advantage. Strathclyde, for example, runs a flexible learning MBA that uses intranet-based materials to form part of its curriculum.

Melissa thinks that a key factor in Scottish schools becoming global education providers is flexibility.

“As the business world changes, what business schools offer has to change [too],” she says. “Business schools have to respond to the needs of the marketplace.”