UK Business Schools Bullish On Future After Brexit

With a more liberal visa regime coming into force, UK schools have many reasons to be cheerful heading into 2020

Julian Villalta, a Costa Rican, came to the UK for an MBA in 2019 with dreams of working for a management consulting firm in the country. His chances would have been given a major boost if he enrolled this year when the UK plans to reinstate the post-study work visa for overseas students. 

But he still finds it an extremely positive development. “This visa should have a positive effect on international students who want to study in the UK — for it will be easier for them to stay post-graduation, thus improving the prestige of a British education,” says Villalta, who started his MBA at Warwick Business School in 2019. 

The post-study work visa is one of a number of reasons for UK business school administrators to be cheerful heading into the new year. 

They will have breathed a collective sigh of relief on December 13 as the British general election helped to alleviate uncertainty that has weighed heavily on educational institutions this past year. 

Brexit could frustrate the UK visa process

But Brexit could still frustrate the visa process or make the UK appear less welcoming of overseas academic talent, while UK schools are also fearful of their continued access to research funding from the European Union (EU), which is not guaranteed. 

Nevertheless, a number of UK business schools are bullish on their future prospects under a new government that has promised to roll back tough immigration curbs that were blamed for a drop in interest from some overseas students, notably from India. 

“The post-study visa is a very positive step and our expectation is that it should benefit international recruitment, encouraging students that wish to remain in the UK to apply in future years,” says Liz Starbuck Greer, MBA director at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. 

Of the Oxford MBA class that graduated in 2018, 54 percent chose to remain in the UK. Only seven percent of the class were initially from the country.  

Even before the visa reforms were announced in September 2019, several UK schools were forecasting a boom in applications for their MBAs, including London’s Cass Business School and Cranfield School of Management. 

“Our MBA program has seen considerable growth, with applications up by around a third compared to last year,” says Colin Morris, head of communications and marketing at University of Exeter Business School.

After Brexit: boom times expected to continue

The boom times are expected to continue now that the Brexit impasse draws to a close and Britain opens its doors wider to foreign students. 

“Growth has been particularly strong from India and China,” says Morris. “Anecdotal feedback is that applicants are aware that there will be increased competition for places due to the proposed two-year post-study work visa, so are getting their applications in early.”

This is a stark contrast to the US, where applications are down for a fifth straight year, GMAC reports. 

Morris says the US trade war with China, as well as the tightening of US visa rules, could be deterring applicants from China from applying to US MBAs, making the UK appear more attractive. “Geopolitical motivations are likely to play a part,” he adds. 

The situation is remarkable in that many UK academics were fearful that the EU referendum in 2016 would make students feel less welcome in the UK. That prediction appears to be overblown. 

Brexit is not a deciding factor for most people applying for places, according to a survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council, which runs the GMAT admissions exam. Its survey in December 2018 found that 54 percent of respondents said Brexit had no impact on their choice to come to, or shun, the UK. This was up from 46 percent in 2016. 

[Read: UK Business Schools Are Resilient Despite Brexit]

There may have even been a benefit to Brexit, with the plunge in the pound currency making UK courses appear relatively cheap to overseas students. 

But Brexit risks for schools abound as well. “A poor outcome to the Brexit process could damage our institution’s ability to conduct collaborative research with EU colleagues, influence future research agendas or recruit and retain the best staff,” says Starbuck Greer at Saïd. 

“Oxford University’s desired outcome from the Brexit negotiations is a continuing strong relationship with the EU.” 

Exeter’s Morris is similarly cautious on the UK’s future outside of the EU. “Like many institutions, we see the main risks as being a reduction in EU research funding, and making it more challenging to recruit and retain overseas faculty, particularly those from within the EU.” 

Villalta at Warwick Business School is concerned about the effect Brexit could have on the UK economy and his post-MBA job prospects in the country. “However, there will never be a perfect scenario and, unfortunately, today’s world is an unstable one,” he adds.

John Colley, associate dean for the MBA at Warwick, points out that Brexit is unlikely to change the UK’s reputation for teaching and research excellence, which remains a big draw for overseas students. 

“We believed UK universities would have been better off staying in the EU, but we now have to deal with the new environment we find ourselves in. We still have a very bright future outside of the EU,” he says, noting that applications to Warwick’s MBA are up by 53 percent year-on-year in 2019. 

“We will have to monitor issues closely, including those around visas and research grants from the EU, as they are discussed and negotiated over the coming months.”  Many UK schools will be thinking along the same lines. 

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