Doing an MBA in the UK in 2021: Challenges, opportunities, and looking to the future

In the face of Brexit and the global COVID-19 pandemic, we spoke to three insiders from leading business schools in the UK to find out how these challenges impact international students looking to study in the UK, including their career opportunities and the future of studying in the UK.

In short

Applying for an MBA in the UK in 2021?

Brexit & COVID-19: Two monster challenges facing international students

While Brexit is nothing new, the addition of a global pandemic in 2020 certainly didn’t make things easier for those looking to study in the UK.

Even though the next few months are still expected to be relatively turbulent and unpredictable, schools in the UK are feeling optimistic. 

“Obviously, we have to be talking about facts and what we do know about,” says David Todd, Head of MBA Operations at the University of Bath School of Management. “In terms of COVID, we’re pretty optimistic that the vaccine rollout will be successful – we have to be – and the restrictions will be lifted and life will start to get back to normal in some way through the spring and the summer. Of course, this is speculative, but that’s how it appears to be going and that’s what we think is going to happen…Nobody knows where we’ll be in six months, so we don’t want to be over-optimistic in trying to predict what happens. But I sense that most UK universities right now are planning to be welcoming students to their campuses in September. That’s how we see it at the moment.” (3:22)

What about Brexit?

“For Brexit, all students from outside the UK coming to study in the UK will now be required to obtain a visa. This is no different for…students coming from outside of the European Union,” David explains. “For those students from the EU, however, they’ll now be required to obtain a visa. So this is probably the biggest difference for Brexit right now.” (3:30)

“Without a doubt, Brexit is bad PR for the UK in general; therefore, it’s bad PR for business schools,” Chris Healy, Head of MBA Marketing & Recruitment at Alliance Manchester Business School, asserts. “But in terms of tangible outcomes, is it going to really impact MBA students? That is very, very questionable [and] debatable.” (5:35)

As it happens, Brexit is, in fact, presenting some opportunities: Last year, the UK announced a new type of visa offering university graduates a two-year post-study work visa, allowing international students to remain in the UK and pursue career opportunities after completing their studies. 

Better than before? How Brexit affects career opportunities for international students

“I look back at the past 10 years and think, in the UK, we’ve had to recruit students on to our full-time MBA programs where we have faced, I think, some of the strictest and stringent visa regulations during my career – and that’s had, I think, a negative impact on UK business schools overall,” Chris tells us. “What we do recognize in terms of 2021 and beyond and I think because of Brexit, [is] it has meant that actually some of the visa regulations for students have been relaxed – and it means those students could come to the UK and work for a minimum of two years when they graduate. I think that’s going to represent a fantastic opportunity for those students without a doubt.” (6:52)

“MBA students are dynamic,” Joël McConnell, Executive Director of Marketing, Recruitment, and Admissions at Imperial College Business School, adds. “Our MBAs continue to receive support from their dedicated career consultants and are continuing to drive [their careers] forward to ensure it remains current and relevant. And again, students are able to take advantage of the graduate work route if they have studied [a] full-time program here in the UK.” (8:38)

Here to help: How schools in the UK are dealing with questions and concerns from international students

As the pandemic continues to transform life and work across the globe, schools in the UK are being forced to adapt and provide effective alternative solutions for their students.

Perhaps the biggest transformation of all is the shift to remote learning. “We’ve had to contend with a lot of challenges on the ground in terms of what we can do in a classroom and then what we can’t do in the classroom since we’ve been in the lockdown situation,” David says. “We feel we’ve done a lot to try and accommodate the situation. Since we’ve had to go remote since the lockdown started, we’ve done all of our teaching remotely online and we’ve got a lot of experience doing this now because we had the carryover from last year when we did it for the first time. So, our faculty [and] program team were quite familiar with working in the online space. Whilst we would [like] to be in person, we feel confident that we can still deliver a good-quality learning experience remotely if we need to do that.” (10:25)

At Imperial College, Joël explains, “Lots of work is being done internally to ensure student learning outcomes and professional advancement goals are being met – and there’s a lot of coordination happening between the institutions and the government…and of course with student groups and unions to ensure that we are quickly offering alternative routes to the same expected outcomes, and of course, to ensure the best student experience under exceptional circumstances. That’s really important for us here at Imperial.” (9:25)

Amidst a global pandemic, MBA programs in the UK are becoming more competitive

Despite the massive disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, business schools across the UK are seeing a rise in the number of applications they receive.

“Back in April or May of 2020, we were having some serious conversations about very different scenarios,” Joël admits. “What we saw in practice was that applicants and candidates were pretty resilient…We actually saw more students than we expected to…It was one of our record years from an applications perspective.” (13:01)

At Bath School of Management, “the applications are pretty strong this year [and] we’re seeing [a] good number of applications,” David says. “And we’re seeing them quite nicely spread across different nationalities applying for the program. So, at this moment in time, we feel that we are heading towards a really good cohort this year.” (14:24)

Lastly, “taking Manchester as an example…we were 48% up on our applications for 2020,” Chris says. “Although [the competitive nature] is absolutely a challenge, I also think it’s a fantastic opportunity for those who are offered a place to study at one of the top UK MBA programs.” (12:19)

The future of studying in the UK: Any advice for prospective MBA students?

With business schools like Imperial receiving a record number of applications in 2020, it is evident that the UK remains a highly competitive study destination.

So, as a prospective student, what do you need to do if you’re thinking about studying in the UK?

“I think the main piece of advice I will give is: Do your research, make sure you know the institutions that you really want to go to, and talk to those people,” David recommends. “Here at Bath, we’re pretty open with our applicants; we have a lot of communication, a lot of contact, and we’ll answer any questions around Brexit [and] COVID…The key thing is [to] talk to people, make sure you get the information you need, and try and think about what the post-pandemic world is going to look like.” (14:55)

The future of classrooms is digital – a fact that David emphasizes, especially after this past year: “Students can still…get the same experience, but doing it virtually, and this is the way we think it’s going to go. So, look at the MBA, ask the programs how they can help you in the post-pandemic world, and they will talk to you about this.” (17:04)

Whatever the future holds, the UK will continue to be “a pretty interesting destination [and a] relatively popular destination for top students who are quite ambitious on the career front,” Joël says. “And because of the graduate worker route, the UK government continues to welcome international students and create an opportunity for them to stay on and work after graduation.” (1:22)

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