Last year Joyce Zhen quit her job as an international marketing executive in Beijing, arranging overseas trade show events for a large Chinese pharmaceutical company, and moved to London after her husband, a banker, was transferred to the City.
Lacking a UK work visa, and pregnant with the couple’s first child, Ms Zhen decided to return to the classroom. She secured a place on this autumn’s MBA intake at Imperial College Business School in the belief she could also get a job in London after graduation.
That career plan looks a lot less certain following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.
“I was totally shocked by the result,” Ms Zhen says, adding that she worries it will not only be harder for her to find work in the UK, but that her husband’s job could be relocated to Frankfurt.
Ms Zhen has the sympathy of Nelson Phillips, acting dean of Imperial.
He is concerned not only about his overseas students but also his faculty members, who fear that EU research funding will be cut. Academics in other European countries are also nervous about collaborating with UK institutions.
“Higher education thrives in an environment of openness and engagement. This is even more true for business schools than perhaps any other part of the university system,” Mr Phillips says. “International faculty and students are the lifeblood of our universities and our membership of the EU has been very good for facilitating cross-fertilisation of ideas.”
Access to EU research funding by British business schools is a major concern. A quarter of all research funding at UK schools — £15.9m in 2014 — comes from private and public sector sources in the EU, according to the Chartered Association of Business Schools.
This funding increased by 166 per cent between 2010 and 2014, while research income from UK central government bodies, local authorities, health and hospital authorities fell by 36 per cent, according to Cabs’ calculations.
If freed from its contribution to the EU budget, the UK’s own spending on higher education might replace or even exceed what schools currently receive, but this is not a certainty.
Simon Collinson, dean of Birmingham Business School and chair of Cabs, says there was anxiety around the table at the association’s meeting of business school heads on the Monday after the Brexit vote.
He says that the dozen or so people present, including several deans, also expressed “a degree of self-confidence” that the likely changes post-Brexit could make UK business schools more attractive to non-Europeans — the majority of their overseas student intake.
This is important, according to Mr Collinson, because students from China and India are “where the money is”.
If a change in the visa regime makes it relatively easy for people in these countries to study compared with EU citizens, and a drop in the pound makes tuition fees less expensive, UK business schools might see an increase in applications, says Mr Collinson.
“We get signals from people on the ground talking to potential students overseas and at the moment it is looking pretty positive,” he says. “Most of our students are really global in that they feel the places that really matter are the US and emerging markets. The EU is not as important as some might think it is.”
This sentiment is echoed by Mark Taylor, dean of Warwick Business School, who insists that while developments will have to be monitored closely, there is no reason to despair. “However the future pans out, Warwick will remain a very attractive place for students to study and for staff to work because of the quality of the education we offer, and the cosmopolitan nature of our student and staff body,” he says.
“We believe that it is not in the interest of any government to lose highly skilled workers.”
One serious concern is whether reports of racially motivated attacks following the Leave vote’s victory will affect the reputation of the UK as a safe place for overseas students.
Brisbane-born Yasmina Darveniza is a former business consultant, about to start an MBA at London Business School, who moved from Australia to the Netherlands in June last year before deciding to study in the UK. Reports of xenophobic attacks have made international news post-Brexit and are “concerning to say the least”, Ms Darveniza says.
“The primary reason I was drawn to study in London was due to its reputation for being a truly international business hub,” she says. “With news of multinational corporations preparing to move their European headquarters to alternative locations, I’m very aware of the negative impact this will have on internship and post-graduation prospects.”
The vote to leave the EU also makes Ms Darveniza wonder whether the UK is as international as she had previously thought.
The one thing that does not concern either Ms Darveniza or Ms Zhen is their choice of business schools. They are both convinced that these will remain leading global institutions.