Will women be the major growth area for business schools?

Women remain a minority on MBA courses and could provide a substantial new market for colleges over the next decade, according to a study published today.

Despite the gains made by women in the workplace over the past few decades, they represent only around three in 10 of all MBA students at colleges worldwide accredited by the Association of MBAs. The consistent gender imbalance applies across the admission and study cycle – women make up 30 per cent of applications, receive 31 per cent of offers and constitute 32 per cent of enrolments.

Women also account for just 31 per cent of graduations overall, though there are regional variations among students at the 161 accredited schools in 72 countries, says the report by the association's Research and Consultancy Centre. Women are most likely to pursue MBAs in eastern Europe and Russia, where they make up 36 per cent of graduations, and Australasia at 34 per cent.

Asia has the lowest proportion of female graduations – 27 per cent – while the UK and the rest of western and eastern Europe stand at 30 per cent, in line with female participation in Africa and North America.

The low female take-up may be partly explained by another finding of the study – that the average graduation age is 34, says Jeanette Purcell, the association's chief executive. "Most people embark on MBAs between the ages of 27 and 40, which is when women are most likely to be having and bringing up children," she says. "At the start of their thirties, women are often starting to think about their domestic responsibilities."

But age alone is unlikely to be the whole reason for the imbalance. "There is an unfortunate and misleading perception of the MBA as a qualification which exists in a macho environment in which women are less likely to fit in. That could scare some people off," she says.

There is also evidence that some employers are less keen to support a female executive through the process of an MBA than they are a man rising up through the ranks, she says. "Women talk about wanting to see more female role models in the schools, such as a woman dean or a prominent female member of the faculty."

There is some evidence, however, that colleges can attract more women. The Instituto de Empresa business school in Spain raised the proportion of women students to more than 40 per cent by a targeted campaign which included half scholarships for expatriate women.

"Women may provide a new market for schools seeking to expand their enrolment," says Purcell.

Looking at the international movement of students between countries, the study found that the UK – which has the largest number of Amba-accredited MBA programmes – dominated the market, attracting three in five of all international student enrolments.

The study found that 37.3 per cent of students on the 142 MBA programmes at accredited schools worldwide were foreign nationals. The rest of western and southern Europe accounted for a further 24 per cent of the total international student body. Only 16 per cent of international students were at colleges outside Europe.

The highest number of students choosing courses outside their home countries came from India, followed by western and eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. India has overtaken China and Hong Kong as the country providing the highest number of mobile students, says Mark Stoddard, accreditation projects manager at the association and author of the report. "Five years ago, you would have seen students from China as the dominant international body, but the numbers have dropped off," he says.

"China has been very successful at setting up its own strong programmes, though there are still a significant number of Chinese students choosing to go abroad, looking for courses conducted in English to gain a wider experience and contacts."

The UK remains a popular choice for Indians seeking to improve their career prospects through a higher business and administration degree. The study of accredited colleges showed that over a 12-month period there were 1,436 Indian nationals enrolled at business schools abroad, of whom 1,006 were in the UK, 290 in the rest of Europe and 43 in Australasia.

Western and eastern Europe, excluding the UK, provided the same number of international students – 1,436, followed by Africa (927), North America (880), eastern Europe and Russia (878) and China and Hong Kong (711).

The lowest number of international students came from Australasia (70). The UK provided 89. The diversity study was an extension of the annual Intake and Graduation Survey that assesses demand for MBA degrees.

Students coming to the UK often cite the international mix as a reason for choosing their courses, says Purcell. "For students from some cultures, team work can be a challenge because people are uncomfortable at putting themselves forward for things such as chairing a meeting or assuming authority over others," she says. "On the other hand, more reticent students can be very academically strong and good at the quantitative parts of the course.

"Students benefit from learning from each other about different cultures and ways of doing business. The diversity of the intake to MBA courses provides a unique opportunity for them to make contacts across the world."