UK’s business schools highly reliant on international postgraduate students

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Business & Administration studies is the most popular field of postgraduate study in the UK, and a new analysis finds that programmes in this field are highly reliant on non-EU international students for enrolments and thus revenues as well
  • In Business & Administration programmes analysed from 2015–2018, seven in ten master’s graduates came from non-EU countries, and more than half of doctorates awarded went to non-EU students

A new report from the Chartered Association of Business Schools (CABS) analysed data from the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and found that between 2015/16 and 2017/18, nearly seven in ten (69%) graduates from Business & Administration master’s programmes in UK universities were international students from non-EU countries.

In only two subjects within the overall field of Business & Administration studies – Health & Care Management and Land & Property Management – did non-EU students compose less than half of graduates.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Anne Kiem, CABS’ chief executive, said the report underlines that,

“[International students] provide the numbers to make many programmes at postgraduate level viable and therefore available for those domestic students who do wish to study them. Importantly, international students bring experience of working in a different culture to the classroom and that in itself is a learning opportunity for everyone else.”

In a press release accompanying the report, CABS notes that the findings also highlight a pressing need to provide an “accommodating environment” for international students.

More broadly, Business & Administrative studies is the most popular subject among postgraduate students in the UK. In 2017/18, nearly one-quarter (61,560) of all postgraduate qualifications were awarded in this field.

Business schools’ international outlook

It isn’t only the significant proportion of international students in postgraduate business schools in the UK that underlines these institutions’ global orientation. The study found that over the past three years, 25% of UK business school graduates emerged with a master’s degree with an international focus. The CABS report highlights the following subject areas most likely to graduate students whose coursework included an international focus: Hospitality & Tourism Management (67%), Business Studies (67%), Fashion (62%), Business & Management (61%), and Event Management (54%).

MBA enrolments decline

Even so, CABS reports that there is a downward trend in enrolments in MBAs in the UK – and that this decline is driven by decreasing interest from non-EU students. The proportion of MBA graduates from non-EU countries fell by 21% from 2015/16 to 2017/18 (nearly 1,000 fewer MBA graduates), compared with a decline of 19% for EU students and a decrease of 5% for UK students. Overall there were 15% fewer MBA graduates in 2017/18 than there were in 2015/16.

Ms Kiem speculated that the decline in demand for MBA programmes might well have been the result of limited post-study work rights for international students:

“It is noteworthy that the decline in demand for an MBA has mostly stemmed from international students, perhaps put off by the inability to stay on and work in the UK on completion.”

Growing interest in entrepreneurship

Overall, the number of graduates with master’s degrees in Business in the UK grew by 12% from 2015/16 to 2017/18, and some sub-fields grew exponentially. For example, graduates with master’s degrees in Entrepreneurship, Enterprise, & Innovation grew by 74% in the past two years; Land & Property Management and Finance also experienced notable growth.

Big jump in non-EU doctoral students

From 2015/16 to 2017/18, there was a 22% jump in the number of students from non-EU countries graduating with doctorate degrees in the field of Business & Administrative studies. Combined with modest increases from UK and EU students graduating with these advanced degrees, the overall trend for doctorates was up by 13% from 2015/16 to 2017/18. For each of the three years in the analysis, non-EU students composed more than half of doctoral graduates.

Post-study work rights

For seven years, UK universities hoping to sustain or build their international enrolments have had to deal with restricted post-study work visas for non-EU students; in 2012, these were reduced by the government from two years to four months. Many believe that the limited amount of time non-EU students have had since then to find work and then obtain a sponsorship from an employer has acted as a drain on demand for UK higher education – especially from the key market of India. Opportunities to work after studying have been shown to be exceptionally important to many international students and policies around work have helped several study abroad destinations to gain market share over the past several years.

The British government’s September 2019 announcement that two-year post-study work rights will be restored – beginning for students graduating in summer 2021 – has encouraged university leaders who have been for years demanding such a change. The new policy will go quite some way to addressing, as CABS says, “the need for an accommodating environment.”

Current international students graduating before 2021 are organising to pressure the government to extend the two-year period to them so they can stay on for more than the four months currently allotted. Their petition partially reads:

“There are thousands of international students currently studying in the UK and gaining valuable skills. Since the current students do not have the post-study work visa for two years and [need] sponsorship from an employer, it will be difficult for them to get a job. […] Employers would definitely think about waiting for six more months, so they can hire other students who have the two-year post-study work visa.”

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