Coronavirus Response Shapes Where People Apply to Business School

MBA applicants are applying to countries that have kept Covid under control and shunning regions rocked by the virus

MBA applicants are applying to countries that have kept Covid under control and shunning regions rocked by the virus

Demand for MBA degrees has soared to fresh peaks during the past year of coronavirus upheaval, as workers have fled an uncertain economy. However, the varied response to the global crisis is influencing where people are applying to business school. 

A new report from education research group Carrington Crisp and accreditation agency EFMD found that 23 percent of prospective students would reject a country for study because they are concerned about the impact of COVID-19. 

A government’s handling of the pandemic is now a decisive factor in where people apply to MBA programs, says European Foundation for Management Development president, Eric Cornuel.  

“We have seen a lot of volatility in central government responses as we experience the second wave of the virus and a potential third wave,” he says. Some countries like Australia and New Zealand have demonstrated their ability to contain the pandemic and support their economies. They stand to gain, along with the US and UK which have managed to rebound after months of instability. Others, like Brazil and India, now face a deteriorating situation. 

“Students are assessing the pace of vaccine roll-out, the efficacy of track-and-trace systems, the operational management of campuses and the availability of quality digital courses,” says Cornuel. Other industry executives say students take a longer-term view when evaluating schools and defer MBA places in pandemic-stricken countries rather than cancel them outright. 

Travel restrictions are impacting prospective MBA students

Travel restrictions have been one of the key factors limiting the growth of MBA applications, especially from international students who are vital to the bottom line of universities. 

“Students will postpone the start of the program if they cannot come to the Netherlands due to travel restrictions,” says Boris Blumberg, MBA director at Maastricht University in the eponymous Dutch city. 

But he expects things to “return to normal” once the restrictions are lifted, which largely depends on the success of vaccinations. 

“I suspect much now depends on the rollout of the vaccines. Those countries that are perceived to be doing this effectively will be in a strong position for students looking for places in September 2021,” says Andrew Crisp, co-founder of Carrington Crisp. 

“Students are applying to schools in countries where successful vaccination campaigns are taking place,” agrees Antonia Kalkavoura, director of corporate affairs at Alba Graduate Business School in Athens, Greece. 

She notes that North American and Western European countries are pulling ahead of the world with their vaccination drives. Asia, after successfully containing the virus with public health measures, is now lagging behind.

Other factors in prospective students’ decisions include whether borders are likely to be open, and whether students forced to begin their studies online are able to obtain post-study work visas. The US was forced to U-turn last year when it prompted a backlash after saying it would prohibit international students from staying in the country if they took classes exclusively online. 

Course administrators highlight a trend of localization, with a larger number of students studying closer to home during the Covid crisis. This reflects concerns over the quality of hastily convened online classes. 

“[Students] didn’t wish to study via Zoom, since this would mean losing an essential part of the whole experience — networking — while paying high tuition fees,” says Kalkavoura. 

Teaching institutions suffered a student revolt over tuition fees last year when thousands of students from some of the world’s leading MBA programs — including Stanford and Wharton — signed petitions demanding refunds and reductions for what they saw as a subpar online university experience. 

A ‘wait and see approach’

Other schools say that students have been mostly understanding of the need for containment measures and downplay the impact of the pandemic on application trends. 

Shameen Prashantham, MBA director at Shanghai’s China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), says some applicants are taking a “wait and see approach” and deferring entry rather than choosing a program this year based on a government’s response to Covid. 

“Confidence in the level of perceived safety, particularly in a new location, is going to be very important, but not a key driver in the overall decision process,” he says. 

He concedes, however, that the pandemic is linked with an applicant’s confidence in a particular country’s economy. “The faster a country controls the pandemic, the faster the economic recovery and the more opportunities for graduates after completing their MBAs.”  

Sameer Kamat, founder of Mumbai based admissions consulting firm MBA Crystal Ball, agrees. “Many international students are looking for more than an education when they’re moving across countries and taking on a huge debt,” he says. “If the leading recruiters have stopped hiring, that’s a major disincentive.” 

The pandemic can work against business schools in regions that have not kept the pandemic under control. “The biggest uncertainty is whether more contagious or deadly mutations break out. This will put countries with high numbers of infections with a new mutation on a kind of blacklist,” says Blumberg at Maastricht. 

He notes the alarming and devastating second wave of coronavirus that has hit India, fueled by the Delta variant. The same is true of Latin American countries such as Chile and Brazil, which are experiencing a surge in cases.  

One of the big beneficiaries has been the UK, with data from the higher education think-tank Quacquarelli Symonds showing Britain’s successful vaccinations campaign has made the country more attractive to overseas students. In a survey of 105,083 prospective students, 47 percent said this. 

The question is whether current application trends are temporary or will stick after the pandemic: schools say it’s too soon to tell. 

For Crisp, the enduring impact might be more students choosing to study online, perhaps reducing the need to travel. “Those countries offering high quality online studies will stand to make the most gains.” 

The uncertain situation underscores the importance of frank dialogue between schools and applicants. “We may not have all the answers, but consistent and open communication is important,” says CEIBS’ Prashantham. 

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