The PIE: Can you tell me about the company, how it was set up and where does your focus lie?
Andrew Crisp: The company was set up 15 years ago; at that stage specifically to work on branding issues with business schools. We started with one market research survey – The Business of Branding – which we’ve run every year since. In the first couple of years it was the UK only, ever since then it’s been international. Over the 15 years, we’ve probably worked in 35 countries with about 150 institutions.
“With the visa situation and Brexit, the expectation would have been a decline in MBA numbers in the UK, but this hasn’t been the case”
Then around 2006/2007 we launched GenerationWeb, which looks at best practice on business school websites – we still run that.
We launched a survey called Tomorrow’s MBA in 2009 looking at prospective MBA students at the same time as Lehman Brothers had crashed – everybody was blaming the MBA for the world’s ills, so we thought that would be quite interesting!
A few years later we launched Tomorrow’s Masters because master’s are replacing the MBA to a certain extent. And at the same time, we ran a study called Alumni Matters.
We also have a couple of surveys which we run on an ad hoc basis – one is called See the Future, a study of current students, faculty and employers looking at future trends in business education.
Alongside all of that, we do a range of individual consulting projects. These are individual projects where somebody comes to us and says “we want to revitalise our MBA, we want to build a new business school, can you help us with data or some strategy on that?”.
There are a variety of projects but I would certainly say 75 to 80% of it is business education.
The PIE: How did you personally get involved in the education sector?
AC: I really got into this when I started doing graduate recruitment for a consultancy firm. The first big project we did, probably 25 years ago, was for Standard Chartered who said they wanted to recruit, I think it was 19 different nationalities at MBA level.
And they asked us where they could find them in the world and we came up with a list of five European and five American schools where there were good concentrations of nationalities they wanted. Then we set up a recruitment campaign for them. I also worked for a corporate comms agency doing the rebrand for the London Business School.
Eventually, I got an invite to help out a friend at Wolverhampton Business School. They had retained their own consultant, Mary Lou Carrington, and when we got to the end of the project one of us said we could have done that better ourselves! So that’s how it all began.
The PIE: You must have seen so many changes in the business school market over the years. Can you tell me about the most significant ones?
AC: I think the most telling one, almost the reason we started the business was when we spoke at a Chartered ABS Conference on PR and marketing. What struck us was the naiveté of some of the delegates.
This was in 2003 and the world was changing so rapidly. Facebook launched a few months later, but schools were uncertain about how to embrace digital marketing and communications, what it might mean for their brands, how to use it to recruit and what they should be doing with their websites.
“MBAs are using the degree for the technology sector which is booming – Amazon are big recruiters on campus”
Fast forward to where we are now, and it’s almost as though that the challenge is not that you know you need to engage in digital, it’s where you need to engage in digital.
For example, which is the right one for this audience in this country, if they’re an undergraduate or a postgraduate, or if they are an employer. Is China’s Weibo important or will Facebook work? Is LinkedIn right for all ages or is it really only right for postgraduate?
I think the other thing that has happened is understanding of the power of ‘the brand’. You can create a personality and an emotional engagement for an institution, whereas 15 years ago differentiation was not an issue, people just went to university, their local university in many cases. And that was about it.
The PIE: How important has marketing and branding become in the sector?
AC: Marketing and branding as a field in higher education has become enormously important, as has international education. It’s just grown and grown, and not just in the sense that you go for a one week trip as part of a program, but you might go for your whole degree particularly a postgraduate in business.
There are many different opportunities for people to travel and take a degree in another country and for that degree to be valued and recognized by the employer. That’s the key in business anyway, that they understand the importance of this because they want people who have international experience.
They understand the quality of universities around the world partly because of things like rankings that give them an insight. It’s a complete change from 15 or 20 years ago.
The PIE: Can you tell me a bit about research in the area of MBAs in the US?
AC: If you look at testing numbers for GMAT, which a lot of the top schools use, the number of US nationals taking the test has declined dramatically over 10 years and at the same time competition from schools for international candidates has grown.
I think a combination of factors are changing the market, a traditional part of which is as the economy grows people decide not to go out and study because they are in a good job and they can get a good job without getting another degree.
Part of it though is cost, Harvard I think, and Chicago this year for the first time decided to hold their MBA fees rather than increase simply because they are aware that the cost has become so significant.
If you are going to study full time – add in lost income as well – the cost of living while you’re studying you can easily end up at over $200,000 with fees. You’ve got to be really confident you’re going to get a return on that investment.
“It’s a fraction of the cost to study in China. You may even get a full scholarship and pay nothing at all”
And also there are simply fewer jobs in the finance sector which used to be the place where so many students went.
Nowadays MBAs are using the degree for everything from the technology sector which is booming – Amazon are big recruiters on campus – but also for start-ups, social enterprise, NGOs and much more.
And the third change: how you actually study. Some don’t study full time anymore, they study part-time on a Monday night, in a virtual classroom and then go back to work on a Tuesday. There are so many varieties of study and so many providers that the market has changed dramatically and will continue to do so.
The PIE: How about new players in the market for MBA students, outside of the UK and US?
AC: You might pick Canada or Australia, any number of European countries and today you’ll probably add China to a list of possible destinations.
First, there are now some really good schools in China – 15 years ago you wouldn’t have recognised them. Secondly, cost, it’s a fraction of the cost to study in China. You may even get a full scholarship and pay nothing at all.
Third, they’re teaching in English. But most importantly perhaps, if you study in China, when you graduate there are some great job opportunities in China.
The PIE: With the reintroduction of the PSW visa in the UK, how do you foresee that changing the UK’s share of the market?
AC: It is really interesting what has happened. With the visa situation and Brexit, the expectation would have been a decline in MBA numbers in the UK, but this hasn’t been the case.
Domestically the Apprenticeship Levy has opened up a whole host of new opportunities for business schools – schools like Aston, Cranfield and Exeter and others have in a number of cases generated three-figure intakes on an apprenticeship levy-funded MBA.
Secondly, the value of sterling has declined – for a student coming from Asia, it’s perhaps 20% cheaper in fee terms than it was two or three years ago. Numbers have stayed relatively healthy.
Until we get some certainty on Brexit who knows, one of the big drivers has always been the ability to provide an internship as part of an MBA program. Now with the visa regulations changing that’ll be so much easier.
I think broadly speaking the MBA market in the UK will remain reasonably strong, albeit the international market may be full-time while the domestic market may be part-time.
You see that in places like Henley where they’ve announced they’re not going to have a full-time MBA they’re going to have a part-time MBA. King’s College London, when they launched their business school, they didn’t have an MBA. Certainly not having that full-time MBA hasn’t been a hindrance to their growth.