Post-Brexit, MBA Officials Keep Calm

The overwhelming message from MBA officials in the UK following the country's decision to leave the EU? No one knows what will happen, so worrying is pointless.

[Read also: UK Business Schools Are Resilient Despite Brexit, published in April, 2019]

In June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, an unprecedented move that left policymakers scrambling to predict the effects of the impending departure of one of the union's largest economies.

The move could potentially reverberate through every aspect of British life—including through the UK's MBA programs. After all, 1400 students from 100 countries account for 90 percent of all MBA students at the approximately 130 business schools in the country, according to 2014 data.

But officials at business school consortiums and business schools alike say they aren't too worried, for one chief reason: no one can predict the Brexit's outcome.

"It is too early to know, is the real problem," says John Colley, associate dean at Warwick Business School. "I think we're all in the same boat in that regard and we don't really know what's going to happen."

How Brexit might affect the UK's business schools

The United Kingdom is not only home to a large number of business schools, but also to a number of business schools that are highly ranked. In 2016, the Financial Times' Global MBA rankings included eight United Kingdom schools in its top 50: London Business School, University of Cambridge's Judge Business School, Oxford University's Saiid Business School, Lancaster University Management School, Imperial College Business School, Cass Business School at City University London, the University of Manchester's Alliance Manchester Business School, and Warwick.

The departure from the EU could potentially affect these schools and others in a variety of ways. For example, students from the EU could be dissuaded from studying in the UK because they might have trouble obtaining a work visa after completing their studies.

But officials point out that the UK tightened its post-study work visa requirements long before the Brexit vote. In 2012, the British Home Office changed its policy so that obtaining a work visa became more difficult for non-EU students, a move that experts feared would discourage foreign students from attending business school in the UK and thereby decrease the number of skilled workers in the country. These predictions came true—at first. Business school enrollment hit an eight-year low in 2013, but then, the numbers turned around. Enrollment in 2014 and 2015 leveled out, and the number of visas granted to foreign students for post-study work actually increased.

Colley says that the 2012 change hit Warwick far harder than he expects Brexit to hit the school.

"The bad news here has already happened in the past, when they tightened up the visa requirements for non-EU students anyway, when they prevented them from being able to extend their stay," Colley says. "That actually did hit numbers right across the MBAs in the UK, as many students wanted to come do the MBA and then stay for a couple of years to do a bit of work and generate some hard currency and experience of working in Europe. But I have to say, our numbers have recovered."

Another potential area of impact could be research funding. According to research from the Chartered Association of Business Schools, an organization that represents the UK's business and management education sector, funding from the EU government for business and management studies went up by nearly 22 percent in the three years from 2010/11 to 2013/4, from almost 11 million pounds to more than 13 million pounds, and funding from EU industry and public sources went up by nearly 166 percent, from nearly 600,000 pounds to 1.6 million pounds. Meanwhile, UK governmental funding went down by 36 percent, from 20 million to 13 million pounds, according to a report from March 2016.

But officials say they're not concerned about the drop in funding that might occur post-Brexit.

According to Colley, since “business schools are largely funded by tuition fees, it's not a huge issue for us."

Although many higher education programs in the UK charge lower fees to EU students, raising fears that prices will go up for EU students post-Brexit, many of the top business schools typically charge the same fee to all students, eliminating that as a concern for many business programs.

Of course, so much of the fallout from Brexit depends on negotiations between the UK and the EU over the next two years. It's possible that the UK could bow out of the EU's political structure while retaining freedom of movement, a set-up similar to Norway's and Switzerland's. The negotiated arrangement will determine whether European students are still allowed to study in the UK without a visa, and whether the many business professors that hail from Europe will be able to continue working in the UK.

The uncertainty around the final arrangement between the UK and the EU is one reason why officials are loathe to speculate on the potential effect on business schools and programs.

"In terms of Brexit, it is still very early days in the process, so any speculation is relatively meaningless at this stage," says Andrew Main Wilson, the CEO of the Association of MBAs, an international MBA consortium. "As far as AMBA is concerned, the situation is very much business as usual."

Another potential concern is an intangible one: the fact that the Brexit vote could be viewed as a signal to foreigners that they aren't welcome in the country. According to a Lord Ashcroft poll released following the referendum in June, 33 percent of voters said that they cast their vote because they wanted the UK to retain control over immigration, the second most popular reason given for voting to leave. But business school officials are quick to emphasize that no matter what happens, their institutions will remain welcoming to a global audience.

"For higher education as a whole, and London Business School in particular, this should not give the signal that the UK has turned inwards," says David Simpson, admissions director for MBAs at London Business School. "We are a global school and will continue our commitment to being so. I believe that the UK will remain an attractive place to study and we will continue to celebrate our diversity."

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