Overseas MBA Applications to Europe Resilient Despite Immigration Concerns

Most European institutions reported growth in applications from abroad this year, but populism is on the rise and work visa regimes are being tightened in some countries

Samantha Williams would have been well served by excellent business schools in the US, her home and birthplace of the MBA. Yet she chose MIP Politecnico di Milano in Italy to do the flagship business qualification this year. 

Her transatlantic crossing reflects her perception that Italy is open for business. Although the ruling populist party has taken tough action on immigration — including fines for captains of boats carrying migrants — international students can stay in Italy for a year after graduation while they search for a job. 

“I chose to receive my MBA from an Italian university because of the ability to return to Italy for an extended period of time and further my career,” says Williams. “Also, the USA can feel very closed, even though it is a country of immigrants. And I wanted to experience something more international.” 

Diversity enriches the learning experience through group discussion. Williams says: “I have been able to increase my knowledge of the EU and gain different perspectives.” 

MIP registered a 25 percent increase in foreign students enrolling in its full-time MBA course this year, and they comprise 70 percent of the overall cohort. Federico Frattini, director of the course, explains that Italy’s reputation for arts, culture and fashion are also attractive to overseas students. 

MIP’s diversity is typical of European business schools, which have long boasted more global intakes than their peers in the US, where a confluence of factors — including the perception that overseas students are less welcome — are behind a fifth year of declining demand. 

In contrast, according to figures from the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC, which runs the GMAT), 60 percent of European institutions reported growth in their applications from abroad this year. Almost 80 percent of overall applications to these schools came from abroad, with 59 percent from outside the EU. 

Black clouds on some European horizons

Yet with populist governments on the rise and visa regimes being tightened in some European countries, is the supply of overseas talent at risk? 

Take the Netherlands, for instance, where some universities want to curb the growth in the number of students from overseas. 

This is because they are supposed to be funded in proportion to the number of students they recruit. The total number of overseas students at Dutch schools has risen by 10 percent since 2013, from 250,00 to 275,000. But government spending on higher education is stagnant; schools receive less money per student. 

Likewise, since 2014, the government of Switzerland has imposed a series of tough rules that signalled a significant tightening of the country’s immigration practice. The work permit quota in 2015 was reduced considerably and a year later, rules on residency permits were tightened too. Candidates for residency now need to prove they can integrate themselves into Swiss culture, by speaking a national language and respecting values such as gender equality, for example.  

Yet this has not dampened overseas demand at IMD in Lausanne, one of Switzerland’s top business schools. “We have almost doubled the number of applications in the last couple of years, and seen a substantial increase in applications from women and Africa,” says Anna Farrus, director of MBA recruitment and admissions.

She adds that most of the global companies that recruit at IMD — which include Siemens, McKinsey and Amazon — are able to obtain work visas for overseas candidates for senior roles in Switzerland, since Swiss authorities prioritize applications that are the most economically beneficial for the country. 

Some European countries still boast strong post-MBA work visa options

Not all European nations are tightening visa regimes. The UK, for example, has reversed tight visa controls under a new administration that plans to reintroduce a two-year post-study work visa for overseas students. UK business school deans have said they expect this to increase demand for their MBA courses. However, future residency rules remain uncertain because of the protracted Brexit process. 

In 2018, the Spanish government introduced a one-year post-study work visa for overseas graduates looking for jobs. However, to secure a work permit (valid for one year and renewable), companies in Spain must prove they cannot not find a suitable EU candidate for the job. 

“Work visas are one of the biggest concerns for MBA students,” says Pascal Michels, director of MBA admissions at IESE Business School in Barcelona. “Any squeeze on that will have an impact on the inflow of student talent from overseas.” 

The bigger challenge for overseas students, he adds, is that many jobs in Spain require candidates to be fluent in Spanish. 

Yet he reports robust demand for the IESE MBA, especially from Latin American candidates who may be put off the US by the anti-immigrant rhetoric. The current MBA cohort is, for instance, the largest in the school’s history and round one application volume for the next cohort was also at a record high. 

“Things are looking good and we expect another very strong year,” says Michels, noting that 84.5 percent of the current class is from outside Spain. Non-Europeans represent 68.5 percent of the cohort. They are also attracted by, Michels says, the vibrancy of Barcelona and its relatively low living costs. 

One nation that appears to welcome highly skilled foreign talent is Germany, although immigration is one of the country’s most divisive issues, because of Europe’s refugee crisis that led to a massive influx of migrants in Germany. 

The post-study visa programme, however, is relatively progressive, explains Nick Barniville, associate dean of degree programs at ESMT in Berlin. “Graduates have 18 months to find a suitable job. When successful, they take their job offer to the office which issues residence permits, and, at no cost, get an unlimited residence permit. Eight years later, they can become a German citizen if they want to.” 

He notes that MBA applications to ESMT have grown slightly in 2019, and that the current class is 92 percent international. Barniville says Europe’s visa regimes, educational quality and value for money are the key reasons why overseas students come to the continent for an MBA. Across Europe, tuition fees are relatively cheap because the MBA courses are often just a year long, compared with two years in the US. 

“These are strong pull factors in themselves, but when compared to the drama of Trump-era America and Brexit Britain, they become even more attractive,” says Barniville. 

The major economies of Europe — France, Germany and Spain — are still governed by centrist parties perusing liberal visa regimes, he notes, at least when it comes to highly-skilled migrants. 

At HEC Paris, the MBA class is 93 percent international and 74 percent of non-French graduates found jobs in France last year, while 50 percent of non-Europeans landed jobs elsewhere in Europe. 

“Students can stay in France for up to one year post graduation to search for their dream job if they wish,” says Benoit Banchereau, an executive director at HEC Paris. Once offered a job in France, graduates can obtain a residence permit, which is valid for up to 12 months and can be renewed. 

“We have seen an increase in applications across all regions of the world, so we are not worried about the inflow of international students decreasing,” says Banchereau. 

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