The crunch question

Will economic gloom mean a dip in MBA applications, or high demand for strong recruits?
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The Independent Online

With chill winds blowing through the economy, and the credit crunch still very much in the headlines, a big question hangs over business schools and students. In 2002, after the dotcom boom, the demand for MBAs dipped by 20 per cent. Will this be repeated? At the moment no one is predicting it will, though QSTopMBA, which runs annual recruiter surveys, admits a fall in MBA demand “in some regions” this year is possible. But against that is set the MBA bounce-back factor. A 2007 survey shows a23percent rise in demand for MBAs in the financial services sector – and that was the fourth successive year of strong growth. At Oxford’s Saïd Business School last year, 90 per cent of students received job offers within three months of graduating. Simon Tankard, head of the school’s careers service, says that things don’t look as bad as 2002. “But there is an issue about timelines–how long it takes students to get where they want,” he says. “Graduates seeking to make significant changes across country, sector and functional area might just find it taking longer. But in uncertain times it’s even more important to hire people who are taught to manage uncertainty and risk – and that’s MBAs.”

The Judge Business School, Cambridge has not seen much downturn in recruiter activity except perhaps fewer London–based investment banking interviews in the autumn. The director Arnoud de Meyer has a sense of déjà vu about the downturn, but thinks mobility is going to be crucial. “It’s cyclical”, he says, “And that’s the bad news. But the good news, if you look at long term demand, is that it goes up in line with GDP, and if we look at GDP growth in the emerging countries at the moment we see it’s bringing new companies and new jobs. “People need to be prepared to go and work where there’s this big growth rate. The world has changed – it’s not just about London, Paris and New York.” Grenoble Graduate School of Business has been tapping into new markets by developing partnerships with institutions in Russia, where growth has been running at around 7 per cent, as well as in Georgia. Grenoble’s partner school students are encouraged to come to its French campus for a week of activities aimed at improving career hunting skills. “In the past students got in touch with the careers department if they wished,” says MBA director Phil Eyre. “Now we try and give them a more professional approach, given that the competition is more intense.” In the UK, Cranfield School of Management, too, has invested in more careers staff. “If you are in a lean market you need a high ratio of careers staff to students in order to do the extra marketing work,” says Peter Fennah, director of Cranfield’s careers service.

Hilary Sears, chair of the Association of MBAs (AMBA) advises early networking. “It can be hard when you’re just getting to grips with the study,” she says. “But if students are starting in September, and some bank job application dates are closing in November, they really need to get networking immediately.” Both Sears and Fennah urge students not to forget the public sector – as Fennah points out, with the Oympics due and other renewal programmes under way, there are areas driving forward irrespective of the stock market. Risk-averse applicants, he points out, can also choose to keep jobs and income while they study by doing a part-time or executive MBA. In the UK the City is still widely predicted to prove an attraction to foreign students looking to the banking sector, but the phasing out of a selected list of schools whose graduates previously qualified as “highly skilled migrants” is causing concern. While this should mean a fairer system as graduates from all schools will be able to gain entry points under a new tiered system, there are worries that MBA students as a group no longer qualify automatically for a set number of points. Instead all students will have to earn them through a combination scored against previous earnings, age, and work experience in the UK. This may mean students at schools which were on the select list lose a previous advantage, while those at schools that were not listed have increased opportunities. The system changes this year, and schools are still waiting to see the outcome. Both AMBA and leading schools are seeking clarification from the Home Office and lawyers about how the new system works, and in particular how long it will take MBA graduates to gain permits under the new rules.