Can business schools adapt to the challenges of declining MBA numbers?

By | January 28, 2013

Earlier this week, the FT came out with dramatic headlines about the UK’s top business schools seeing their MBA numbers fall dramatically.   The graph below demonstrates the point.


The cause is down to a ‘perfect storm’ of different factors converging.  The UK has had a concerted campaign to reduce the number of immigrants. To do this it has tightened border controls and visa applications.  It has had the unintended consequence of making this country less welcoming to overseas students.  Theresa May may have announced that 1,000 extra places will be added to UK net migration caps for MBA graduates who plan to start a business in the country, but it will have little effect on visas for the 2013 MBA recruitment market.

We are of course in a global recession – and this recession has been longer and deeper than any other in decades.  In the past, MBAs have been counter-cyclical.  Managers have used their savings to study for an MBA while the economy was flat and they may have lost their job, poised ready to take advantage of the upswing.

This recession has been different.  One of the biggest issues has been lack of loans and funding and people are reluctant to spend what savings they have.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

And of course, new business schools are springing up in India and China – attracting a market that would once have gone to the UK and America.

Our own business school has seen numbers decline along with our competitors – ironically, just as we achieved the AACSB accreditation, giving us the ‘Triple Crown’ and putting us into the world’s top 58 of business schools.

But businesses across the world have faced similar challenges to ours and our teaching helps them to apply transformational strategies, despite recessions and increased competition.  So we are now applying our own teaching to ourselves.

Here is just a snapshot of what we are doing to ensure we retain our position among the world’s top business schools and deliver for our students and alumni.

1. Flexible learning modules

Many of our students are concerned about the long term commitment of an MBA when they can’t be certain of the economy or their plans.

Our distance learning MBA has grown significantly and we expect that to continue.  We have worked hard over the last two years to ensure that anyone studying an MBA at Bradford can move seamlessly between full time, part time and distance learning MBA.

Our modules are also run simultaneously across the world – so students could study strategy in Singapore, finance in UK and HR in Dubai.

2. MBAs for the future

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Perhaps our greatest innovation has been to create an MBA with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to reflect business and business models of the future.  The circular economy has become a hot topic, recently mentioned in EU policy documents, and is seen as a way of gaining competitive advantage for organisations and economies.  The circular economy MBA has been designed with the likes of Renault, B&Q and National Grid and will appeal to those working in large corporates as much as those wanting innovative digital businesses of the future

3. Specialist Masters


The MBA may not be growing at the same pace as before, but the specialist Masters field definitely is.  Earlier this year we launched a trading room for students on specialist finance MScs – where they can practise trading on Thomson Reuters Eikon software as well as gain insights into ethical dilemmas.

4. Working with professional institutes

Last year we launched a new employee relations postgraduate programme designed with the help of international companies including BP and HSBC.


The new course is designed in partnership with the Employee Relations Institute (ERI) and businesses and trade unions such as UNITE have all contributed ideas to make the programme practical and relevant to employers.

5. New overseas partnerships

Of course, many businesses have a strategy based on ‘if you can’t beat them, join them (but do it better)’.  We are exploring new partnerships for delivering Bradford degree programmes in high growth markets such as China.

This is a business school that is practising what it preaches – finding new avenues for new futures.

If you were in our seats, where would you focus your efforts for the future – and where do you see the MBA market going?

Where do you see future opportunities for our School?

About Jon Reast

Jon  is a Professor in Marketing at Bradford School of Management, Research Cluster Head for Marketing and Co-Editor of the Corporate Social Responsibility Section of Journal of Business Ethics. Jon primarily teaches Marketing Strategy, Relationship Marketing and Marketing Communications and specializes in research relating to marketing ethics, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and relationship marketing. Professor Reast has professional marketing experience in the healthcare, toiletries, food and beverage sectors, working for companies such as Reckitt & Colman and Kraft General Foods, and has consulted widely. A graduate of Leeds University (BA Econ) and Leicester University (MBA), with a PhD from Leeds University. His research work has previously been published in journals such as Journal of Business Ethics, Psychology and Marketing, Long Range Planning, Journal of Marketing Management, Industrial Marketing Management, Journal of Advertising Research and International Journal of Advertising.


+        Marketing ethics
+        Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
+        Relationship marketing

15 thoughts on “Can business schools adapt to the challenges of declining MBA numbers?

  1. Ricardo Rodrigues

    I am a first year MBA student (distance learning) at Bradford and I must say that I am very happy with the MBA experience and with the Triple Crown accreditation but one of the main sources of information when I chose Bradford MBA was the FT rankings. Might not be crucial but it’s very important for us students and for job seekers to say that our MBA is among the best 100 in the world. There are thousands of MBAs and even if it’s there no doubt of the excellent quality of the Bradford MBA it is important to make efforts to recover that position among the top 100. I am 100% confident that the MBA team will make that happen!

  2. Yuvaraj

    First of all it is sad to see the school slipping out of top 100 MBA league. This decline has been gradual and hence it doesn’t come as a surprise. As mentioned in the article, with the prolonged recession people don’t have money to spend on higher education. The closure of psw visa to foreign nationals doesn’t help the cause either.

    The triple accreditation helps school’s reputation but it doesn’t necessarily communicate anything directly about the benefits of the programme to students. There is no strong reason available for the people to invest the last bit of savings on something that doesn’t materialise to career progression.

    Geographic location of the school is an obvious disadvantage for many reasons. Unless school focuses on building top networks with the industry, future employment of the students are going to be a great problem.

    School may consider changing the programme structure to include more of real life cases that can be practical and offer collaboration with industry that can help students to develop important networks (not just SME’s – they don’t have budget to recruit MBA’s).

    School is firm on academic curriculum in which students have to write dissertation/projects for the duration of 2 months. If it is a company based project, a student can spend one month in a company and he/she needs one month’s time to write the report. What benefits can the student or company gain in 1 month? In reality it is insignificant. Very few company based projects carried out by students goes for execution.

    Most of the top employers are offering internship programmes for 3-6 months. More often than not these internships normally convert into future employment. But the schools curriculum structure doesn’t allow students to carry out internship and hence students are denied an opportunity to explore new career avenues. Most importantly new industry networks could not be built.

    If the students can be shown a clear path of employment or career advancement after MBA then it will naturally win new new students and improve the ranking.

    School can target niche industry segments like retail, manufacturing and develop courses that can help professionals to elevate their career to the next level. If these course involves debates, brainstorming and team activities at industrial premises rather than at classrooms, the value offered to students is something different.

    Distance learning is a step ahead in right direction but how much of practical value and network offered to students will determine the sustainability of the programme.

    I wish the school good luck and will continue providing support to the students and school as much as I can.

  3. Mohamed Niyaz

    I graduated in 2009 with an MBA from Bradford and I was extremely pleased with my experience there. One of the main reasons I chose to study MBA in UK was because the duration of the program is one year and despite significant health challenges, we found that the school was very accommodating to my needs. I somehow graduated in a year.

    Having said that, I am more than happy to help in expanding the reach of the school. You’ve mentioned China in your strategy, however, do we know that 400,000 engineers graduate out of Universities from the 3 (out of 29) southern states alone? This statistic is from several years ago and many go on to study MBAs.

    Despite the many positives that I can mention, the only disappointment I felt was that there were no career opportunities for me after completing my degree. However, career centre was pretty helpful. I am currently in Chennai, India.

  4. Ankit Shrivastava

    However unfortunate it is to get pushed out of FT 100 as well as a poor QS ranking, this should act as a wake up call for UK B-schools and more importantly Bradford University School of Management. Referring to above mentioned point, the School has to decide how it wants to be perceived to corporates, prospective students, alumni and stakeholders. Too much emphasis on distance learning or specialist Masters will continue to hurt MBA brand though it might help in certain ranking such as QS. Triple crown place importance on how schools run at processes and operations level but the actual output (result) is the MBAs/masters it produces and how well they are recognized across corporates and society. Right from the intake criteria, to fees, to teaching staff and facility, to curriculum, to exposure, to alumni network, to partners and alliances, to recruitment – all aspects need to be relooked, leveraged, assessed to minimize the impact of external factors. For example, the recent change in fee (a drop to 19k) gives a different message to prospective students in this environment and must be challenged. I wish the school all the best and I hope that next year we will appear in the ranking again. More than that, I hope to see a higher impact of Bradford MBA alumni in the industry. A bottom up approach along with a top down (strategic) approach hopefully will be able to turn things around.

  5. Professor Jon Reast, Acting Dean

    Many thanks for all of the constructive comments which various people have made, there are clearly a lot of people who care a great deal about School of Management and the fortunes of its MBA. The feedback is very useful, and we will consider this. I would just make the point that as far as UK institutions are concerned, the withdrawal of the post study work visa has made a huge impact on our ability to compete internationally and offer career routes.

  6. Pol

    Bill Gates thinks there is something perverse In college ratings. See Forbes article at:

    Whilst he may be referring to US college ratings – his views and opinion may well be relevant to the discussion here. The article reports Bill’s view in that “There is no feedback loop in rating colleges,”and “The control metric….. should be whether colleges are doing their job to teach them. I bet there are community colleges and other colleges that do a good job in that area, but US News & World Report rankings pushes you away from that.”

    If we apply this perspective to the discussion here maybe what we need is not a ranking based on traditional business school measurement metrics such as those employed by the FT. Rather, maybe business schools should be looking for a new ranking system that focuses on learning, knowledge and teaching effectiveness (and relevancy) . Basic metrics might be a better indicator of value and worth – at least as a comparator to the more traditional FT & similar rankings.

  7. Rich Marshall

    I am entering into my final project, having started my MBA in Jan 2010 as a distance learner. I must say I have thoroughly enjoyed the experience and loved the time I have spent at the school either in person or virtually.

    I have always taken the view that the accreditation was the valuable aspect of the MBA – in fact, the push for the triple crown was the tipping point for me joining this programme.

    The distance learning aspect was fundamental to my entering into an MBA. I work full-time, run a small business, have 3 young children – soon to be 4, and do short-break fostering. The flexibility and scope of the DL programme appealed and has proven extremely beneficial – being able to defer exams, defer modules or take on additional ones if circumstances dictated.

    Looking at the criteria for the FT rankings, it’s a shame many of them do not focus on the actual content or challenge associated with the course – focussing on salary as the key element. I wonder if there are trends that have been noticed with the scores – has the university seen a steady decline (or lack of improvement) in one area which needs addressing? I assume this is being looked at.

    I also wonder if a faster paced distance learning programme is being considered – to extend the options open to distance learners? With the accelerated programme becoming more popular, and certainly when you consider cultural trends and the need to have everything quickly, this might be something worth considering. I’m not sure how the D-L programme is doing, but perhaps this might make it more appealing – especially if the VISA issue is continuing to cause problems for our international colleagues?

    Happy to get involved further as required.

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  9. Anonymous

    If the triple accreditation is very important, why Bradford School of Management in MBA course went out from the 100 business school (FT 2013) ?

  10. Jon Reast

    Thanks for your comment. As discussed in this blog there have been a lot of challenges in the last year with increased numbers of business schools globally. However, we are practising what we preach and have a strategy to ensure the long term, top quality positioning for the School.

  11. Cheated

    I graduated from Bradford in 2009. I cannot say that I have ever benefitted. I learnt a lot but to be very honest, the UK is way behind in talent management. Every single company I have ever applied to post MBA has said my MBA is not relevant to my role, previous technical experience is. I have always worked in Financial Services. Maybe I apply to the wrong places, maybe it’s because my valid experience is foreign, maybe I graduated in the heart of the recession. But my advice to anyone thinking about working in the UK, especially in Financial Services is to not bother to think about an MBA unless you are in senior management. My director is 51 and we were chatting about next steps in his career and he said ” I would need to do an MBA at some stage”. I work in a company of about 600 employees. I know of 2 other people with MBAs, both at the director level. Admittedly I carry a lot of baggage because I don’t feel valued and certainly don’t feel like there is a match between mentally and intellectually what I am capable of and how others view me, which is purely based on my professional experience.

  12. jake

    I am currently studying by distance learning mode. Not from Bradford, although l continue to consider it in the near future. From what l can gather, Bradford’s distance learning program is made up of 14 modules, Warwick’s distance learning program contains 11 modules, my Australian MBA-Global Business contains 12 modules. Full time programs on average contain up to half or 3/4 as much which seems a bit perverse, as learning on campus is more ‘rewarded’ and of a higher quality – perhaps due to the availability of teaching staff. Per module, the amount of work per distance learning module is far more than what a non-distance learning program contains. Yet l have access to the same services as a full time UK undergraduate – a Web ICT platform, a digital library and access to teachers. Aside from that, my distance learning school in Australia, which l am currently attending, only as one star rating which places it at the “bottom” of the Australian league tables. The University of Southern Queensland has never attempted to acquire EMBA or EQUIS rating. Yet it is a public school, funded by the state, and my fee burden is about 65% of what a full time graduate student in Toowoomba would face. Lately l have noticed a U-turn with many graduates who after the great recession of 2008 started programs and have left distance education for real world education. I am struggling through my distance learning degree, working hard, and trying to “learn” a new way of thinking. All in all, l would say that the experience has taught me much, and l am making progress, however slow. I am not too worried about triple crown accreditation for now, l was hoping that with the completion of about 75% of my degree l would find employment. Many employers are more interested in MBA graduates as ‘starters’ and that will continue well after the recession. I know people who have completed various good MBA’s from the public Universities of Malta and Cyprus and have found good starting opportunities. Accreditation maybe an option after saving up money, paying back their parents and finding a “better” school for many of my friends.

    If anyone of you is considering distance learning – l would like to sound a note of caution. Distance learning is not for the faint of heart. It is a struggle – a struggle that makes you reconsider many of your own ideas about things, and how they all fit together in the greater scheme of life. I started with USQ in early 2010, and now three years later, l still have not reached the 3/4 mark which is very disconcerting. Yet l know, unlike my undergraduate education, l have made much headway and much of what l have learned l can apply in job applications or interviews. The MBA teaches a strategic mind-set – yet it also forces you to question your own skill-sets. Especially when you are engaged in distance learning. If you have a full time job along side this, it may be very tough to study off campus. I have had to rewrite many an essay, and because l don’t have a network of peers to call upon, l have had to make sure that l have “understood” the material in far greater depth and range than l would have at school – adding to my tensions.

    Perhaps the decline may be that schools who started distance learning failed to anticipate that distance learning students need far more support than on campus students. USQ is not the ‘golden boy of the rule’ as we say, in fact some teachers are very good and others never respond or send a single line email which does not help much. The lack of communication is problematic, and is why many of my friends who started distance learning ended up leaving. Also many found acquiring a multi-disciplinary skill set ‘too hard’ – l have had to compensate by hiring a undergraduate University of Cyprus tutor which adds to the cost, and the time wasted on learning. I have also had to reconfigure my life around the course, which many fail to do. Many people who start distance learning programs use them as spring boards failing to complete them, partly because they are not sufficiently supported and are fed up of failure. Yet the majority of distance learning students l know, fit exactly that category – yet universities see them as cash-cows to be exploited more than full time students. I think that uni’s who do distance learning should reconsider the ethical position of their decisions – we are not cash cows, we are students, who for various reasons or weaknesses much employ distance learning to compensate for weaknesses in our previous learning.

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  14. Akif Azimov

    My choice of Bradford University for Distance Learning MBA was based on two criteria:

    (i) Value for money paid (in terms of comparison of education fees with other less known Universities or not well known MBA programs from top at least top 100 Universities in the World)
    (ii) Accreditation – triple accreditation was a major factor, which supported my choice.

    MBA is primarily important for people who are near step to managerial position or already there to formulate management approaches and tactics best suited for effective business practices. MBA of not great value in terms of positioning to find a job at senior level as experience always matter first.

    I have just started (completed only two modules) my DL MBA at Bradford and so far enjoy the study. It makes me to think about competent and professional growth in my managerial position and to feel myself and confident in other functions, which I never tried to practice with completing by bachelor degree.

    Yes, sure there are cases when people upon graduation of MBA get employed in blue chip companies or receive offers for senior positions, but with no experience it is more exceptional cases rather than usual practice.

  15. Jon Reast

    Akif, many thanks for your thoughts on the DL MBA programme and your reasons for choosing Bradford. Once again we’ve been ranked as one of the best schools in the world for our DL MBA programme – more here – and we’re working hard to make sure we continue to deliver the highest standards of education.
    You also point out we are one of only 59 business schools in the world to be awarded the elite ‘Triple Crown’ with kitemark accreditations from AACSB (The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), EQUIS (European Quality Improvement System) and AMBA (the Association of MBAs). That’s something we are hugely proud of and we know it means a lot to both our students and prospective employers.
    Your points on studying for an MBA are also interesting. While it often results in senior positions for students after qualification – our students see an average 30 per cent wage increase – the biggest benefit is always the skills and insights you get into successful business practise.
    Many of our students tell me they don’t often fully appreciate the value of their education until they’ve been back in the “real world” for two to three years as that’s when their skilled approach to business really begins to reap rewards – either in promotions or in increased business returns and staff performance.

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