When Carl Gilleard went to pick his son up after his first term at university, he toyed with the idea of mentioning that he might end up graduating in a period of recession. In the end, he decided not to spoil the ride home. But as the chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), economic uncertainty remains uppermost in his mind.
So far, he says, the banking sector is the only one where some AGR members are considering a recruitment freeze. However, he believes, if job vacancies were to become thin on the ground the MBA could make all the difference.
"When the going gets tough, employers become more discerning and they look at what additional value a candidate can bring. This, then, is the rub for the MBA candidate. What they have to do is demonstrate what value their MBA will bring to the role that they're applying for."
He adds that if the MBA has given them an insight into the booming economies of India and China, the employer is likely to be even more impressed.
Jeanette Purcell, the chief executive of the Association of MBAs (AMBA), says that applications for MBAs remain strong but that 2003-2006 were difficult years, when the business degree faced a barrage of criticism.
"That period followed a real boom in MBAs that couldn't be sustained. There was some settling down in the market, and questions were raised as to whether the MBA was really as relevant and valuable as it should be. It took a bit of a knocking by people like Henry Mintzberg [author of Managers Not MBAs].
"There was all that going on and there was economic uncertainty. I would have to say that business schools, were not prepared for that sort of change in the market – as I think they would accept. They had been fairly complacent because students were just rolling up to sign on and employers were taking their graduates without much further inspection as to what they were getting."
She's convinced that this period of uncertainty has been good for both schools and students. It has forced schools to put global business skills and leadership at the centre of their programmes. "Students can be sure that they're getting something that has been really scrutinized for its relevance and developed in response to what the market needs."
Professor Arnoud De Meyer, the director of the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, points out that the short-term market for MBA graduates is usually counter-cyclical – there is high demand at the start of an economic downturn and a low number of applications when the economy starts to boom.
"As a consequence, we see regularly (every 10 years) a wave of articles about the MBA being dead." The first one he remembers was in Fortune magazine in the early Seventies.
What is different this time is the rise of China and India. De Meyer believes this could mean that MBA graduates from the US or Europe will need to study in Asia or spend several years working overseas. "The top-level institutions in Europe and the US will no doubt defend their positions, because they can attract top-quality students from all over the world," he says. "But the second and third-tier institutions in the UK may be in for a hard landing."
AMBA recently held its first conference in China and intends to make this an annual event. It has accredited two business schools there and has more in the pipeline. It is recruiting someone to work locally, to "keep the momentum going," Purcell says. AMBA has accredited one school so far in India, where it is also raising its profile by attending conferences.
Most large business schools are trying to recruit more students from these regions. But Neil Gibbons, Henley Management College's executive director of open enrolment programmes, points out the differences between the Indian and Chinese markets. He has just returned from a tour of Asia-Pacific and India where there is strong demand for post-graduate education.
India has nearly 1,000 business schools, but only a quarter of them are recognised by multinational companies. Gibbons says this means that many managers are keen to complete a second MBA.
"Our experience is that when you speak with candidates they will say, 'Well, I already have an MBA from an Indian school but I would like an international MBA'."
Henley also offers an MBA programme in Hong Kong, but Gibbons says that red tape makes it difficult for foreign schools.
Students tend to be younger and have less experience than is usual on a European MBA course. "The market in China is not nearly as easy as it might at first appear."
Purcell, by comparison, is much more upbeat about the region. "Business schools in China are saying, 'We really need you, we need accreditation, we need to get in touch with what's happening outside and we will do anything to help you develop in China'."
Whether the shift in economic power to India and China will prove a blessing or a threat for European business schools will probably only become clear in the next five years.
'The MBA refreshed my thinking; I started to challenge the norm'
Gary Nicholls's employer, the used car supermarket Carland, funded his MBA at Henley Management College. He is now sales and marketing director at Transform cosmetic surgery group.
"I don't think I would have been able to make such a radical move without the MBA. It added credibility that someone could move from a certain sector to another. Personally, it definitely gave me the confidence that I could. The MBA refreshed my thinking and I started to challenge things. That's a great thing to have – to open your eyes to other parts of the business world.
"It will be useful if we enter a recession. When you're doing an MBA you come across a lot of different scenarios. Cosmetic surgery has become used to phenomenal growth. However, it's more competitive now. There's likely to be consolidation, survival of the fittest.
"There are a lot of people out there who haven't been through hard times, and as the job market gets tougher employers will see more choice. A good-quality MBA will make a difference. Certainly, that's what I would be looking for as an employer. Don't put off doing an MBA. If you can put the work in now, as we come out of recession you'll be a lot stronger."