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Angus Laing is not a happy man. As dean of business and economics at Loughborough University, he was pleased that one of his graduating doctoral students was offered a lecturing position at a UK school. But so far the student, who is from outside the European Union, has been unable to obtain a UK work visa.

The move is self-defeating, says Prof Laing, who is also chair of the UK’s Association of Business Schools, the industry body. “We really don’t generate enough PhDs to go into academia, given the growing demand for undergraduate and MBA degrees. Yet we have good applicants that we can’t employ.” He has no doubt that these PhD graduates will work elsewhere, possibly in competitor institutions in Europe where visa restrictions are less onerous. “We’ve trained them and we need to employ them,” he says.

The tighter UK restrictions are also affecting visiting faculty, says Kai Peters, chief executive at Ashridge. He cites the example of a professor from the University of Cape Town who has taught at Ashridge for two months a year, for many years. These days the bureaucracy involved in getting the visa is becoming overly onerous, says Prof Peters.

These are just two of the issues facing UK graduate business schools as the UK Border Agency tightens its grip on visas for those from outside the EU. The move could prove particularly damaging to UK schools, which promote themselves as among the most globally minded.

On January 31, the UK coalition government will end its consultative period with universities on student and employment visas, opened just two months ago, and by April it will announce the new regime. Employment visas for faculty is one issue; of even more concern is that, under the new regime, graduating MBAs from non-EU countries will lose their existing right to work in the UK for two years after graduation.

Instead, most graduating MBAs from outside the EU will have to apply individually under the points-based system (Tier 1 visas) or get their prospective employers to apply for them (Tier 2 visas). The good news, says Fiona Sandford, director of career services at London Business School, is that it looks as if applications for Tier 2 visas will become less complicated. And, adds Derek Walker, director of careers at Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, the banks, which are big MBA recruiters, are holding steady. “I have yet to see substantial changes in the visa policy of many in banks.”

But, says Ms Sandford, amendments to the Tier 2 scheme will be of little help to smaller recruiters, such as hedge funds or private equity groups, which are particularly attractive to MBA graduates. In these cases students will probably have to apply individually under the Tier 1 scheme.

Most business schools understand the government objective to restrict Tier 1 visas for those students who remain in the UK but take low-paid, unskilled jobs. However, they are concerned about the mechanisms to distinguish between those graduates and those offered MBA-level positions. In particular, it could prove a slap in the face to graduates who paid between £10,000 and £50,000 ($16,000-$80,000) to study for an MBA in the UK.

Sharon Bamford, chief executive of the Association of MBAs in London, says that introducing a minimum salary threshold for Tier 1 applications – £30,000 for example – would help.

“These [MBAs] are the sort of people we should welcome with open arms.” If these high-fliers get jobs elsewhere, she says, it will be detrimental in the long term to the UK. “When they are doing business, they won’t look at the UK.”

She also believes the restrictions to employment visas will foster a perception that the UK is unfriendly to managers from outside the EU. “How can we be a competitive nation if we are so inward-looking?” she asks.

A further potential complication exists with the Executive MBA, one of the most fashionable business programmes these days, in which working managers fly in to study for weeks at a time at business school

Prof Peters says that in the UK there are no visas appropriate for non-EU participants who want to study on these part-time programmes. “They are taking the risk of coming in [to the UK] 12 times a year as a visitor”. Any tightening up of these rules could be catastrophic for UK business schools as these programmes are some of the most lucrative, with business schools bringing in upwards of $100,000 in tuition fees alone.

Most business school deans and career directors are viewing the future with trepidation. “The devil’s in the detail,” says Ms Sandford.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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