Until the 1970s, when fresh oil wealth brought investment into GCC schools and universities, the wealthiest Arab families routinely sent their sons and daughters overseas to study. Even a decade later, in the 1980s, Gulf nationals continued to travel overseas for graduate and post-graduate study.

Over the past 30 years, the Gulf education sector has expanded rapidly. Meanwhile, universities in Europe, in particular, have come to depend heavily on income from international students. Today, most employ recruitment teams, whose job is to attract students from overseas. More than ever, international students represent a lucrative source of revenue.

There has been an explosion in demand for business courses, and MBAs in particular. MBAs account for one in every seven Master’s degrees in the UK, while two-thirds of US business schools reported an increase in applications to MBA programmes in 2007.

Emerging market

Management education has been slow to develop in the Middle East. There are fewer than 500 business schools across the region. In Asia, there are 5,000 business schools; in Europe, there are 4,500; Latin America has 2,000; and North America has 1,750.

Because of their ageing populations, a growing proportion of North American and European business school students will come from overseas in future, according to John Fernandes, international president and chief executive officer of US accreditation body the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB).

“With dwindling numbers of graduates in their 20s to beyond 2025, European schools are arguably the most aggressive in recruiting students overseas,” says Fernandes. “It is a strategy that has enabled a degree of oversupply in the market to correct itself.”

UK business schools already rely on overseas recruitment. This year, just 20 per cent of the Cass Business School in the UK’s MBA students in London are British. This falls to 5 per cent of MBA students at Oxford University’s Said Business School (SBS). Most embrace growing diversity as a positive phenomenon.

Domestic demand

“International experience is important in one’s choice of business school,” says Chris McKenna, MBA programme director at SBS.

“Lots of European students choose courses overseas, and lots of international students come to Europe. We aim for a mix of roughly a third each from North America, Asia and Europe.”

Gulf Arab students make up less than 2 per cent of the intake on SBS’s MBA programme. Internationally, the region generates a fraction of overseas MBA students.

Of the overseas universities who spoke to MEED, Insead has the largest Middle East intake, with 9 per cent of the students enrolled on its MBA in France.

Meanwhile, studies suggest more Arab students want to study closer to home. The US-based Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) monitors applications to global business schools based on the graduate management admission test (GMAT), an entry requirement for 4,000 management programmes around the world.

GMAC’s 2008 World Geographic Trend Report for GMAT Examinees shows that the number of Middle East students who applied to home-grown business schools increased to 42 per cent from 5 per cent between 2003 and
2007. The figure rose to 45 per cent among younger applicants, aged 25-30.

It is hard to extrapolate as students generally apply to several schools, and the data covers successful and successful bids. However, in 2007 the UAE entered the top 10 choices for Middle East students.

GMAC says its figures reveal growing interest from Arab students in business schools closer to home. And although the US remains the first-choice destination, the percentage of applications from Middle East nationals fell to 43.2 per cent, from 48.7 per cent, between 2003 and 2007.

“Examinees from the Middle East overall show an increased interest in studying in countries such as Canada, the UK, Lebanon, Spain and the Netherlands, [while] the UAE debuted on the list of top 10 preferred school-location
countries – in 2007,” the report concludes.

Brand-building

But although it could become more challenging for overseas business schools to recruit Gulf students in future, international colleges are stepping up their recruitment in the region.

The UK’s Hull University Business School recruits Gulf students to its MBA programme in the UK. “Our biggest international markets are probably China, India, Nigeria and Ghana, with Saudi Arabia coming fifth,” says David
Bright, programme leader for Hull’s distance-learning MBA programme.

“We see no sign that Gulf students are losing interest in overseas study, although it was tough in the US for a while after 11 September [2001]. Gulf students who opt for the campus-based MBA in Hull are younger and less senior
than those who join our MBA programmes in Manama and Muscat. The Gulf-based courses attract very senior people – generals, entrepreneurs and senior civil servants.

“Hull-based MBA students are more likely to be junior-to-middle managers working with organisations such as Batelco, Omantel or one of the government ministries.”

Karen Siegfried, executive director for MBAs at the Judge Business School of the UK’s Cambridge University, notes a growing interest from employers in MBA graduates with Arabic language skills and practical, career-based experience in the Middle East.

In the past, Judge’s regional recruitment focus was on MBA fairs in Cairo and Tel Aviv. However, growing demand for skilled regional talent will lead the school to add MBA recruitment fairs in Abu Dhabi and Dubai to its itinerary for the first time this academic year.

Said Business School plans to open an alumni office in Dubai and has added the emirate to its MBA students’ global itinerary for next term, part of a module on doing business in different cultures.

The other global trade hubs to be visited are New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai.

The trip is not purely a social experience; it is also an opportunity for the students to meet, and impress, potential employers in key international markets.

“Our commitment to the region works in two ways,” says Grant Phillips, acting head of careers at Said Business School. “On the one hand, we want to recruit Gulf nationals to our MBA courses, but we also expect growth in career opportunities in the region, in private banking and wealth management. The alumni association will help us embed our brand in the Gulf.”

Confronted with such a huge choice of business schools at home and abroad, prospective Gulf MBA students can afford to be discerning, particularly as the marketplace is increasingly crowded and competitive.

Organisations including the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal produce annual league tables ranking the top MBA courses. This year, the EIU’s top 10 shows an even split between US and European business schools, with just one Asian player in the top 20.

Students and employers scour the MBA rankings with interest. In the 1980s, an MBA was rare, and therefore valuable in its own right. Today, however, it is the big-name business schools that produce the most sought-after students, and their degrees are a passport to global employability.

Specialist programmes

Competition has also led several universities to create MBA courses tailored to the needs of students from the Arab and Islamic worlds, including modules that cover Islamic banking and finance.

MBAs in Islamic finance first became available in Asia. Malaysia offers courses in sharia-compliant finance at the International Islamic University and the Islamic Banking & Finance Institute.

Pakistan’s Riphah International University has launched an MBA in Islamic banking and finance in partnership with Mizan Bank. Now, the UK’s Bangor University in Wales has launched an MA – although not yet an MBA – in Islamic banking and finance. City University in London’s Cass Business School has gone a step further. In 2007, it became the first business school in the world to launch specialist executive MBAs in both Islamic finance and energy.

To date, however, much of this specialization has been concentrated in MA and MSc courses, rather than MBAs.

Robert Rice, managing director of Bahrain-based Management Development Centre International (MDCI), says international management education is facing a shake-up as younger, less experienced students turn to newly specialised Master’s degrees in business, leaving MBAs to target mid-career managers.

“A decade ago, a school with 200-300 campus-based MBA students would have had 30-40 additional students enrolled in business-related MSc or MA courses,” he says.

“Now, there is a swing back towards Master’s degrees as more specialised courses become available. “There is more competition for jobs, and the MA or MSc route can take students with limited or no experience. In future, MBA courses, with their focus on back-to-basics business practice, will [attract students with] comparatively more experience.”

Career paths

“In the past, MBA demand exceeded supply and the market was not, perhaps, so mature,” Rice adds. “But now, employers and students alike are more discerning “With the rise in business-related Master’s programmes, we are also seeing a refocusing of the MBA as the general management programme it was originally intended to be.”

Already, several universities outside the Muslim world offer specialist MA and MSc courses in Islamic finance. In the UK, Durham University, the School of Oriental & African Studies in London, and Lancaster University Business School all offer optional modules in Islamic finance at Master’s level.

With so many business schools and courses competing for students, finding the right MBA, at home or abroad, can be difficult. AACSB’s Fernandes says Gulf students should proceed with caution when considering which MBA course best suits their needs.

“There has been a dramatic increase in business schools with a more entrepreneurial spirit,” says Fernandes. “And with large numbers of small companies entering the market, inevitably some will be of questionable quality. So it is very important that both students and employers do their research.

“Every [prospective] student should research the school’s specialist strengths and disciplines, and find out where its graduates go on to work.

“It is a risk to invest in an MBA if the school is not accredited by a major body because the qualification is unlikely to be recognised by global employers. And that is dangerous because, these days, you never know what path your career will take.”