by Lance Lambert,
The U.K. hosts three of the top 10 management programs outside the U.S., which lure students from around the globe.
Britain’s exit from the European Union casts a shadow over thousands of prospective applicants looking to attend a business school in one of the most desirable MBA markets in the world.
The U.K.’s new prime minister, Theresa May, made it clear earlier this month that foreign students wouldn’t be exempt from the government’s push to decrease immigration. As Home Secretary she implemented visa changes that made it harder for students from abroad to stay in the country after graduation. A crackdown on immigration was at the heart of the Leave movement calling for Britain’s exit, or Brexit.
Now, business school officials are worried all that will send a message to potential students from China to Nigeria to Germany to the U.S.
“I’ve seen lots of statements by ministers saying, ‘We’re very much welcoming still,’ and so on. But that is not the perception that the Brexit vote has created,” said David Grayson, director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at the Cranfield School of Management, who fears management education in the U.K. could be “substantially affected.”
Britain is home to three of the top 10 MBA programs outside the U.S. on Bloomberg’s most recent ranking of business schools: London Business School (No. 2), the University of Oxford (No. 6), and the University of Cambridge (No. 8). These schools rely heavily on students from outside the country.
Brexit, which will take up to two years to fulfill once it formally begins next year, could usher in changes to British law that allows EU students to study in the country without a visa. More broadly, schools are concerned that the backlash against immigration could pressure the U.K. to put up barriers against all international students, beyond those from the EU.
It’s happened before. In 2011 the government announced a tightening of visa regulations for international students. May’s Home Office put those policies into effect in 2015, writing to ministers that U.K. universities should “develop sustainable funding models that are not so dependent on international students,” according to news reports.
Fraudulent business programs that abuse the system are a real concern. But the policy changes hurt British business schools’ efforts to recruit international students, especially in India and China, the Chartered Association of Business Schools wrote in a report this year. Non-EU first-year students studying business and administration in the country last year dropped 8.6 percent to 60,190, the lowest level since 2009-10.
Students studying at business schools in the U.K. contribute £3.25 billion ($3.96 billion) a year to the country’s economy, according to the business school group. That’s a fraction of the nation’s economy. But £2.4 billion of it, or nearly three-quarters, comes from international students.
Management schools, the training ground for the next wave of global business leaders, say the most troubling development of the vote to exit the EU is the rise of anti-business, anti-immigration, and anti-trade sentiment itself.
“We have to be conscious of all the things going on in the world. [Business] doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and neither do business schools,” said Peter Tufano, dean of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.
And it’s not just British business schools that worry. “CEOs are concerned about the potential for big upheaval in ways that would challenge the role of capitalism,” said David Schmittlein, dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. “They’re equally concerned about Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who are coming at similar outcomes from different perspectives.”
For some MBA seekers, business schools in the U.K. have a special allure: high-paying finance jobs in London. That appeal could lose some luster if the industry takes a step backward. Indeed, TheCityUK lobbying group published a piece early this month that said British banks could lose £40 billion in revenue if the country left the unified European market.
“Ninety-five percent of our MBA students are here because the U.K. government has allowed them to be here. It would be a real shame if it moved in the opposite direction and made it more difficult for students to study in different countries,” Oxford’s Tufano said.
Sandra Bishara grew up in Egypt before moving to the U.K., where she graduated this year from the University of Manchester’s MBA program. Bishara said that even with the uncertainty of Brexit, British MBA programs will continue to appeal to international students who speak English. The programs tend to be more affordable and faster to complete than programs in the U.S., she noted.
In advance of the Brexit vote, administrators at the Oxford’s business school compiled a “risk list” of possible fallouts and are “starting to see which of those are materializing” but “haven’t thrown much out,” Tufano said. “There are some implications of Brexit that would be, I think, disastrous for the U.K. and higher education more generally. Others are more benign.”
His concerns include how Brexit will affect faculty recruitment and research funding within Britain and the EU. For instance, a weaker pound could make programs financially more attractive to applicants but do the opposite for potential hires.
Brexit will result in the loss of EU research funds and regional development funding. That money has become more important in recent years as the U.K. has decreased its own funding. From 2010 to 2014, government research funding for business schools dropped 36 percent to £13 million, even as EU research funding allocated to U.K. business schools jumped 22 percent to £13.3 million. The schools take some comfort from the British government’s promise to make up for the lost funding through 2020.
“In all of the dealings I’ve had with politicians … our students are precisely who they want to attract to the U.K.,” said Andrew Likierman, dean of London Business School. Likierman said he’s confident the country won’t do anything to push away the types of people likely to enroll in the country’s elite MBA programs. Instead, the nation’s leaders want to limit immigration of “unqualified and unskilled” people, he said.
He said he is confident that applicants to London Business School will understand they’re still welcome in the U.K. But if schools receive fewer applicants, they won’t know until next year.
Schmittlein, of MIT’s Sloan School, said in recent months he has watched the fear of social unrest grab the attention of executives and Sloan alumni from around the world, but that he is optimistic the “louder voices” won’t have lasting impacts on business education.
“This isn’t the first time people have gotten anxious about globalization. This is just the latest of that manifestation,” he said. “What we’re offering students from all over the world is to get a very global view of business. And the demand for that isn’t going away.”