Financial TimesWhy cosmopolitan classmates matter at business school

December 6, 20200

Raneem Alnrshe won a place on the MBA programme at HEC Paris in March, just as France and much of the world went into lockdown. The 27-year old Syrian (above), who was working as an architect in Abu Dhabi at the time, is typical of the diverse, highly international students who apply to European business schools every year. But like many of her cosmopolitan intake in 2020, she had to overcome an obstacle course to start the new academic term on campus.

The French embassy in Abu Dhabi suspended visa issuance until late June as France closed its borders, casting doubt on her enrolment at HEC. Alnrshe did eventually secure a visa but was told by the embassy that she could not enter France until mid-August, and only after presenting a negative coronavirus test at the airport taken up to 72 hours before her flight.

The wrangling did not deter her from getting to HEC for the start of the academic year in September. “I’ll never be discouraged from pursuing my dreams,” says Alnrshe, who wants to switch careers into marketing. “Getting an MBA in these hard times could be more intriguing and attractive to recruiters.”

A cosmopolitan mix, along with the opportunity to obtain a work visa and pursue an international career have been the big draws of European business schools. This multicultural offering, however, is being hit by coronavirus travel restrictions.

While the Covid-19 recession has ignited a boom in applications, which historically are countercyclical, some international students have not been showing up for the start of term, even though they may have paid a deposit.

Virtual virtues: technology has helped break down barriers to business education
Virtual virtues: technology has helped break down barriers to business education © Getty Images

The Graduate Management Admission Council, which runs the GMAT entry test, found that 80 per cent of applications to European schools in 2020 were from international candidates. The 2020 Application Trends Survey also found that, because of concerns over online learning, travel and visas, yield (the percentage of accepted students who ultimately enrolled) across Europe fell by 5 per cent. For MBAs in Europe, the deferral rate rose from 6 to 11 per cent year-on-year.

Germany’s Mannheim Business School exemplifies this, reporting a 20 per cent rise in MBA applications year on year for 2020. But 35 per cent of those who were admitted did not enrol, up from 10 per cent the year before. “We could really see the insecurity in the market this year,” says Kai Stenzel, chief market officer.

That is mostly because of bottlenecks in processing visas as embassies around the world were temporarily shut. Like some other schools, Mannheim delayed its MBA start date from September to January 2021, giving international students more time to obtain a visa.

In the meantime, free classes are being offered online to future participants, reflecting how lockdown has prompted innovative solutions to connect global students to European campuses, with technology breaking down barriers to business education.

“On one hand, protectionism is rising, with countries trying to protect their borders,” says Stenzel. “But through technology the world is becoming more connected than ever.”

At some schools, though, overseas students have deferred MBA places to the next academic year because of a switch to remote teaching. “If you quit your job and fly across the world to study from your bedroom, you might think, ‘I might as well have stayed at home’,” says Eloïc Peyrache, interim dean at HEC, which is blending online and in-person teaching. “You want a high level of interactivity.”

About 20 out of 155 mostly international MBA students have deferred enrolment until HEC’s second intake in January, hoping that the crisis will have eased by then. To encourage them to take up their places, HEC is offering to collect international students from airports. Other schools are arranging accommodation and meals for those who are required to quarantine on arrival.

Alnrshe appreciated the regular contact with HEC staff, who kept her informed on rule changes and the school’s plans. “It was heart-warming to have them reassure me they would do everything they could to get me to campus,” she says.

Iese Business School is also going to great lengths to ensure students can get to Barcelona. This year 30 out of 350 enrolled candidates deferred their MBA place to 2021-22, including international students who were struggling to afford the €89,950 tuition fees because their currency had weakened against the euro. The rise in deferrals prompted Iese to increase its provision of scholarships.

Marc Badia, Iese’s associate dean for MBA and Masters in Management programmes, says global diversity is crucial because companies covet the ability to lead across cultures, and a wide range of perspectives enriches the learning experience. “We cultivate diverse study groups and give students the tools to leverage the potential of that diversity and manage the conflict it can cause,” he says.

In some places, however, this diversity is under threat. In the UK, the University of Exeter Business School had 30 per cent fewer non-EU students enrolled this year than in 2019 because of the pandemic. Rising domestic demand has not made up for the shortfall of income from overseas students, who tend to pay higher fees, forcing the institution to explore new ways to recruit abroad.

“Normally, we would be sending academics out to talk to prospective students at recruitment fairs around Asia,” says Stuart Robinson, associate dean for professional education. “A lot of these events are now going virtual.”

Other European institutions are exploiting academic partnerships overseas and using alumni as brand ambassadors to recruit international students. The importance of international recruits is heightened by demographic pressures including population declines in many European countries that limit the pool of domestic students

At the same time, Andrew Crisp, a higher education consultant, says competition to attract a generation of globally mobile students is increasing, with schools in countries such as Singapore and China growing in popularity. “European schools have to work harder,” he says. “They have had it easy for a long while.”

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