Why geography matters in your MBA decision

Being pragmatic over where you study could pay off in finding employment and in what you get from your course, says Abigail Townsend

AS BUSINESS has gone global, so has business study. According to QS TopMBA’s Applicant Survey for 2013, the US and UK remain the top two study destinations to gain a Master of Business Administration (MBA) qualification, their rankings unchanged since the survey began. Yet the lead held by these educational giants is narrowing – and there have been big increases in interest in other countries.

Last year, for instance, there was a 5.4 per cent jump in those considering Canada, a 3.4 per cent surge in interest in German institutions and a 4.8 per cent increase in those considering studying in Australia; Canada and Australia are now more popular than ever before.

The report, which received responses from 4,122 business education applicants, concludes: “For the first time, a majority of candidates are basing their choice of study destinations around where they would like to work after graduating. This is now the second most commonly cited reason for candidates’ preferred study destination, behind ‘international recognition of qualifications’, which has dropped from 70 per cent to 64 per cent since 2011.”

Where they wanted to work afterwards was cited by 51 per cent of respondents as their main reason for choosing a school, up from 49 per cent in 2012 and 41 per cent in 2011.

This pragmatism has been forced on many MBA applications by the effects of the global recession. Jobs in core financial centres such as London and New York are no longer in plentiful supply, meaning that executives need to look far wider for suitable positions.

Yet Elaine Ferneley, director of MBA programmes at Manchester Business School, believes it is also part of a wider trend that has little to do with the global economy.

“MBAs should be seeking programmes that provide an international perspective,” she argues. “We live in a global age and it’s imperative that MBAs are comfortable working in an international context.”

Manchester Business School has six international centres – in Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Miami and Brazil. Students are able to study at these bases, as well as Manchester, something Ferneley claims offers “a great chance to immerse themselves in a new culture and build an international network”.

She continues: “Location is an important consideration alongside programme content and the balance of theoretical and practical work. We focus on applied learning to stimulate original thinking in an international context. Central to this are 600 hours of consultancy projects, including the International Business Project, where MBAs deliver live consultancy for businesses across the world.”

Certain locations are also more relevant if candidates want to work in specific fields. Warren Smith, director and founder of online legal directory Access Solicitor, was a lawyer working in the entertainment industry when he decided to apply to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Anderson School of Management. He had previously only considered the usual names in the UK and US – including Harvard, Wharton and the London Business School – before his attention was drawn to Los Angeles.

He explains: “In a scholarship interview for Wharton, the interviewer asked me why I was applying to Wharton and not UCLA Anderson if I wanted a media-focused MBA. At the time I had never heard of UCLA Anderson, so I did more research – and the following year I only applied there. I had a clearer understanding of what I wanted from an MBA so took a gamble by putting all my eggs in one basket – and it paid off.

“UCLA Anderson has the best media-focused elective courses, the deepest network of alumni in the entertainment industry and, because of its proximity to Hollywood, great opportunities for networking and placements.”

Asia, meanwhile, is increasingly of interest to potential MBA students as its importance on the global stage grows. According to TopMBA, in 2009 only Singapore was seen as a possible study location by candidates. Since then, India, China and Japan have risen up the ranks. “This points to a substantial rise in the profile of Asian business schools as priority destinations for today’s international MBA applicants,” says the report.

Studying abroad has downsides. Generally speaking, the alumni network of US business schools tends to be strongest in America, and in Europe for European schools, meaning you could lose much of what you hoped to gain if your subsequent career takes you to another part of the world.

And there are also bureaucratic factors – the ease of getting a visa, the stress of moving families overseas – and the cost. Even within the same country, the latter is relevant: applicants must factor in not just fees and living expenses, but loss of earnings during the study period if they are applying for a full-time course. So studying in Manchester or Durham, for instance, over London – with its exorbitant cost of living – could well be a more practical option.

Choosing a new location is a bold move. It involves leaving the city or country where you have built your career, and uprooting partners and children. Yet in a global business world and a tough economic climate, it could prove profitable as well.