Why Fewer International Students are Choosing the UK for their MBA

Immigration policy changes are creating challenges for overseas students, but the allure of studying in Britain persists

The UK has long been a beacon for international MBA students, owing to its highly-ranked business schools, rich cultural diversity and strong employment outcomes. However, recent shifts in immigration policies by the UK government have cast a shadow over the sector, leading to a decline in international student enrolments.

According to a recent report from the Chartered Association of Business Schools (CABS), three-quarters of its UK members are facing a drop-off in international students in their MBA programs. CABS cited the impact of the UK government’s immigration policies as a key reason for the decline in overseas demand. But UK schools insist that the allure of studying in the country persists. 

The government has from this year barred overseas students from bringing their families with them to the UK to study, unless they are on a postgraduate research course. The future of the post-study work visa is also in doubt. This route allowed international students to stay and work in the UK for two years after graduation, a significant attraction for MBA students. 

Impact of immigration policies on MBA enrolments

The result is that some international talent is turning away from the UK. According to the CABS report, enrolments for the January 2024 intake were 76 percent lower among non-EU students compared to 12 months ago. The outlook for recruitment from the EU is also “concerning” with 41 percent of schools reporting lower enrolments, CABS said. 

Business school deans are concerned about the perception that the UK is now perceived as a hostile environment for international students, with nine out of 10 respondents to a CABS survey agreeing that recent government policy announcements were having an adverse impact on their school’s ability to recruit international students. 

“These latest results show the potential for the government’s immigration policies to severely damage one of the UK’s most successful exports,” says Robert MacIntosh, chair of CABS and pro-vice chancellor for business school at Northumbria University. “The decline in international business student enrolments will limit a vital source of universities’ income, which underpins the cost of teaching and research across subject areas far beyond business and management.”

Adapting strategies to retain appeal

Business schools are actively reassessing their strategies to retain their appeal to international students, from enhancing support services for visa applications to offering financial aid to entice overseas candidates to pursue their MBA in the UK. 

Business schools are also seeking to uphold the UK’s reputation as an inclusive and welcoming destination for international students, by highlighting the contributions of international talent to the economy and society – CABS said that international students contribute £42 billion each year to the British economy. 

UK schools are heavily reliant on international students, who typically make up more than 90 percent of the enrolled students in most MBA programs. But rather than seeing this as a vulnerability, schools chalk it up as a strength. 

Strengths of UK MBA programs

“The UK is known globally for its high-quality education. This is in part driven by the diverse range of students enrolling to study here, with the majority of UK MBA students originating from other countries. This allows students to benefit from exposure to a range of cultures, viewpoints and opinions in their team interactions and class discussions,” says Marie Dutordoir, MBA director at Alliance Manchester Business School, in the northwest of England. 

Compared to other global education hubs such as the USA, the birthplace of the MBA degree, UK schools offer a more cost-effective option for business education as well. Most MBA programs in the UK are around one year in length, cutting the opportunity cost of not working in half compared to studying for two years in the USA, as is commonplace. 

“A one-year MBA is an attractive proposition to individuals who want to upskill and develop without being out of the job market for too long,” says Aram Karakashian, executive director of marketing, recruitment and admissions at Imperial College Business School, in London. 

He adds that the UK’s business schools continually are heralded as the best in the world by rankings. In the Financial Times 2024 Global MBA Ranking, 10 UK schools are included – the second largest grouping by country behind the USA. London Business School is the highest ranked British institution, followed by University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School and the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

These schools insist that employment outcomes remain a big attraction for international students considering the UK for their MBA, despite uncertainty over the post-study work visa’s future. “The UK, and London in particular, is home to not just a multitude of globally renowned businesses across many sectors, it is also a hotbed for entrepreneurial businesses starting and developing their corporate identities,” says Helen Foley, MBA program director for London Business School. 

“Irrespective of economic conditions, there is always a market for talented individuals in the UK,” she adds – something that is demonstrated by consistently high employment rates three months post-graduation, which are around 90 percent at LBS. 

So while recent immigration changes have posed challenges for international MBA students considering the UK, for many, the allure of studying in the country persists.

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