Melissa Jones will not easily forget her first visit to Almaty, the commercial capital of Kazakhstan.
Manning the Insead table single-handedly at the QS World MBA Tour spring fair last month, she found herself parrying questions throughout the evening from enthusiastic potential candidates for the business school in Fontainebleau, France, and Singapore.
“I had at least 10-15 people at my stand the entire time. It was quite overwhelming,” says Ms Jones, assistant director of marketing at Insead.
Not that she was complaining. Ms Jones and others at the fair confirmed both the high level of interest and the quality of potential students from Kazakhstan. The central Asian state is seeking to shed its Soviet past and establish itself as a modern, educated society capable of sustainable development for its 15m people.
“I visited Kazakhstan last year and the quality of candidates has definitely improved. English language skills are much better and from the questions asked they had clearly done their research before coming.”
Indeed, numbers at the fair itself are an indication of the growing demand for business education. The pioneering Almaty fair in 2007 attracted just eight schools; last month 450 would-be students quizzed 24 schools.
Quality and ranking count
Svetlana Paltseva, a 32-year-old Kazakh law graduate, is determined to study for an MBA in the west. “I don’t have any statistics or data [to support my beliefs], but I think the level of business schools in Kazakhstan is not high enough,” she says.
And while she admits cost is important, Ms Paltseva puts the quality and ranking of the school first.
“I’m financially independent and can pay for an MBA; the rank of the university – the highest possible that can accept my GMAT scores and professional experience – and location, where there is the opportunity to get a job after graduation and get at least two to three years of professional experience locally – these are more important for me than cost.”
She is confident that a quality MBA will prove its worth in the future Kazakh commercial world.
Increasingly, an MBA is seen as an important tool to open up perspectives, establish new networks and boost careers. However, while a clutch of domestic institutions, sometimes in co-operation with western schools, offer programmes without the expense of studying outside the country, these emerging programmes are still in their infancy and, in some cases, have generated controversy regarding standards.
Consequently, many see an MBA from a reputable international institution as a better option, despite the additional cost, says Alun Bowen, managing partner of KPMG in Kazakhstan.
“I think they see both first degrees and MBAs from a good university abroad as a lot more credible [for their career prospects],” Mr Bowen says.
Inevitably, not all Kazakhs can afford the cost of an international MBA, but recruiters at the fair say many Kazakhs appear prepared to pay what it takes.
“It is difficult to judge levels [of finance] at such events. Of course, many are interested in scholarships but I also met others who suggested they had access to funding that would finance programmes at top business schools,” says Ged Drugan, programme director of executive education at Manchester Business School, UK.
Will such focused enthusiasm for a western degree prove well-founded? Indeed, do young Kazakh professionals now erroneously see an MBA as a passport to a fast-track, successful career and ignore the value of on-the-job managerial experience?
Certainly, some at the fair were “a little young” for MBAs, where candidates must have at least three years appropriate working experience, says Mr Drugan.
Mr Bowen is sceptical about the value of an MBA as a guarantee to a fast-track career. He is also concerned that Kazakh employers do not value an MBA, even from a respected western school, quite as much as Kazakh students think.
But, he says, at least Kazakhs are not taken in by the first business school that comes along.
“It’s not a case of any old MBA will do,” he says.