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Brexit Is a Challenge for UK Business Schools—But They Will Prevail

Although the U.K.'s decision to exit the EU has created upheaval, schools in the region have seen little fallout and have even fared well; that trend will continue for a couple of key reasons.

The Brexit debacle rumbles on.

Recently U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson tried to suspend parliament to force Brexit through. That was ruled illegal. Now he’s back with his own Brexit bill.

And still, the final, unwavering Brexit date—where the U.K. will absolutely, definitively leave the European Union with or without a deal on October 31—could very well change.

Brexit is undoubtedly a challenge for business schools in the U.K. The uncertainty Brexit has created is unhelpful; schools understandably fear Brexit’s impact on student numbers and the reputation of the U.K. as a study destination.

But even in this uncertain time, U.K. business schools will survive Brexit.

People Want to Study in the UK

When the U.K. voted to leave the EU in June 2016, the first fear was that potential business school students would look elsewhere. In fact, the opposite has happened.

According to GMAC’s Applications Trends Survey Report 2017, two-thirds of U.K. MBA programs saw their international applications grow between 2016 and 2017.

That trend has continued. In the Top Countries for Business School Candidates 2019 report released by BusinessBecause and the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), the U.K. is ranked the second-most popular study destination in the world after the U.S.

Despite Brexit, in the past five years the popularity of the U.K. as a study destination has gone up by over 2 percent—only Canada has seen its popularity among business school candidates increase by more. The U.K. is the most popular country for study among Western European candidates responding to the survey, including U.K. citizens. And for survey participants from America, China and Southeast Asia, and Latin American, the U.K. is the second-most popular study destination, after the U.S.

The future looks promising, too. Generation Z, candidates born in the mid-1990s to early 2000s (those under 24 years old), is almost 10 percent more likely to study in Europe and the U.K. than the preceding millennial generation (24-to-30-year-olds).

This interest from candidates has converted into applications. At London Business School, for example, applications have gone up by 15 percent year over year. And at Imperial College Business School, applications to some programs are reportedly up by more than 50 percent.

The UK Has Strong Brand Reputation

While most schools have not seen applications drop, some have seen candidate demographics shift, with those who intend to study in the U.K. and return home afterward less concerned about the potential impact of Brexit.

If it goes badly, Brexit could negatively impact the reputation of the U.K. as a study destination. A country’s reputation is the most or second-most important factor for prospective students when choosing where to study, according to research from CarringtonCrisp.

However, the U.K.’s long-held reputation as a global center for higher education will supersede any impact Brexit may have. Highly regarded business schools, and those attached to historic universities like Oxford and Cambridge, have global brands that transcend what happens politically in the U.K.

Furthermore, surviving Brexit is not like a Titanic evacuation plan, limited to the first-class, the rich, and the famous.

I wrote recently about how business schools can use content marketing, among other digital marketing techniques, to build brand recognition and credibility. By using content marketing, schools can tell their own stories, define and develop their brand, and get into the minds of prospective students.

They can associate their brand with something beyond simply the school’s location. A school in the north of the U.K., like Lancaster University School of Management, can be known globally for its strength in corporate strategy, for example. Cranfield School of Management, in Bedfordshire, can stand out for its strength in energy and ties to the U.K. defense industry.

Plus, with online learning and global campuses, students can get a degree from a U.K. school now without studying in the U.K. London’s Cass Business School runs an EMBA program at its Dubai campus, for instance, while Birmingham Business School offers a fully online MBA and MSc in international business.

Brexit is a surely challenge for business schools. With U.K. agreements with the EU at risk, there are legitimate fears over retention of European faculty and EU research funding.

However, I think the long-term impact of Brexit on U.K. business schools will be limited. The one area that could have seen a lot of blowback, candidate applications, is so far one of the least catastrophic events in the years-long affair.

The U.K.’s reputation for higher education, combined with the way business schools today can use digital marketing techniques and adapt programs to reach a global audience, mean U.K. schools will continue to thrive.


Marco De Novellis is the editor of BusinessBecause, an online publisher dedicated to graduate management education, and is the creator and host of the podcast, The Business School Question. Follow him on Twitter @marcodn_bb.