Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
Image of Hilary Wilce

Join The Global Mix

Published By: The Independent - 08 Apr 2010

One thing is clear about studying for an MBA. No matter where you take it, you will learn as much from your fellow students as you will from the formal teaching. So it makes sense to think hard about who you will be working alongside, and in particular whether you will be joining a good international mix of students.

Why? Quite simply because the world is now global and any job you get afterwards is likely to have some global dimension. Your horizons will be broadened, your CV strengthened and you will end up with a worldwide web of contacts.

“Our full-time MBA programme has 40 students on it from 18 countries and is truly international. We never allow any sort of background to dominate,” says Inger Seiferheld, MBA executive director at the University of Edinburgh Business School. “Students learn so many things that aren’t in the textbooks from working together. Like in some cultures, if you’re handed a business card it’s polite to read it there and then, and maybe comment on some aspect of it. And this goes through so many things. How to shake hands, how to behave in meetings.”

However, getting a truly international mix takes skill and judgement. A few years back business schools were swamped with applications from China. Now that has slowed, as China’s own business education sector has developed, but applications from India are rising fast.

“The sheer size and growth of India and the fact that the UK is a popular destination means that Indian applicants are a very dominant group at the moment,” says Peter Simpson, MBA director at Bristol Business School. “I was recently at an MBA fair in Mumbai and answered questions solidly for three hours. Students are demanding, well-informed and know what they want. We are also seeing growth in the Latin market, from the Latin American and also from people in Portugal and Spain who want to come here. Economies are struggling and people know they need to internationalise their CVs. So it is fascinating to have to manage these sorts of changing dynamics. Things are constantly shifting and schools have to think about what mix they want, and about the different demands within that group. For example, some students might come in with fluent English, but be less familiar with working in an educational context in English.

“For our UK students the mixed cohort really stretches their experience. They’ll all come in with the view, for example, that businesses are run to maximise profits. But in a number of countries that is not necessarily the case. We have debates about religious issues and about different views on charging interest, and these can be very intense, but we manage it well because we keep our groups small.”

“We attach a lot of importance to the nature and diversity of our student body and are always looking for a good mix,” says Colin Mayer, dean of the Sai(two dots over the i)d Business School, Oxford – a location that draws students like a magnet from around the world. “The international experience is really important. It gives people a wide appreciation of the way that business is done differently in different parts of the world and the need to understand the cultural context. Our students work together in cross-cultural teams and bring very different experiences to their projects. For example some students were recently developing apps for mobile phones to deliver healthcare in emerging markets, and some were able to advise the team on financing in such a market and some on how to get traction in terms of accessing rural communities.”

“We have very diverse admissions and intakes, both in terms of background and experience,” says Ebrahim Mohamed, director of the executive MBA programme at Imperial College Business School, London. “Our 70 full-time students come from 25 countries, and for the weekend version of our part-time executive MBA programme people fly in from Africa, North America, Russia, Turkey and China. They do 20 trips Thursday-to-Sunday trips in the course of the programme! We major on having a collaborative environment and on working on real projects, and the cultural and sectorial mix of our students makes the work really exciting. They come to see the world from a different perspective and to develop different ways of understanding complex issues.”

Even electronically, mixing with students from other countries can be stimulating. The 4,000 people currently taking their MBA with the Open University come from 87 countries and meet up in online discussion forums, as well as at occasional residential events. “A few years back one of our graduates was MBA Student of the Year,” says James Fleck, dean of the OU Business School. “He was a Dutch biochemist who had worked on malaria in East Africa, then joined the United Nations and did his MBA based at our Vienna campus. That gives you some idea of how international we are.”

Barbara Kral-Hasty, 27, who works for a healthcare company in Kansas, has discovered a big downside to her international student cohort at Durham Business School. “When your friends get married you have to fly to India! I wanted to go abroad to do my MBA after five years working in telecoms and it was great having such a mix of people because you got a lot more out of classroom discussions, but, wow, it took me out of my comfort zone! I remember we did a boardroom simulation project where there was me, two British, one Japanese, one Tanzanian, one from Hong Kong and one from India and I remember thinking even if I worked for the largest multi-national company in the world I’d never sit down with this kind of group of people. And there were always issues that came up like someone being very softly spoken, because that was what was considered polite where they came from, and I guess perhaps Americans like me being seen as quite outspoken. But it wasn’t just in the classroom. At Thanksgiving I had people over, and we talked about all the different ways we celebrated, and my Indian flatmates told me about Divali. There were 48 graduates from my class, from 18 different countries, plus students on the other programmes – I also took French lessons for two hours a week. The whole experience was phenomenal, and I now have friends in France, Germany, Canada and India.