UAE Business Schools Thriving

Students are scrambling to update their CVs amidst economic uncertainty

From a liver transplant surgeon to an NGO director, the diverse roll call of UAE-based individuals signing up to MBA courses has sky-rocketed as individuals seek to improve their skills.

The London Business School, Hult Business School, Cass Business School, Manchester Business School and INSEAD have all witnessed an increase in enrollment this year as the financial crisis prompts professionals to develop their businesses, and spruce up their CVs in order to win big-ticket jobs.

The UAE’s MBA market is also contending with a developing education story in Qatar, where gas-fuelled growth and a government spending spree have wooed big names to set up base. But the UAE’s financial hub status, developed infrastructure and vibrant population are set to keep professionals flocking to the UAE in order to attain an MBA while also soaking up the lifestyle.

Hult began with 100 students in its first year of operation in Dubai in 2008 and the school now boasts 300 post-graduates, which is close to its maximum. INSEAD’s Abu Dhabi campus, the school’s third campus, is looking at 30 participants this year, versus 26 the year before.

Demand for MBAs is rising due to a surge in inflows of professionals from the surrounding region jetting into Dubai to attend classes. The boom in markets all the way from India to the Eastern bloc is fuelling a new stream of students.

“Our activity in Abu Dhabi is not something exclusively for the local market, but it is a regional platform for INSEAD. The campus in Abu Dhabi gives us access to the GCC, the wider Middle East, parts of the subcontinent, and parts of Africa,” says Javier Gimeno, INSEAD’s dean of the executive MBA programme.

“We expect the GCC to continue to do well. It will be interesting to see what happens with Egypt and Libya, which could be a developing market, but India is probably the fastest growing educational market at the moment.”

The London Business School’s mix of students is currently split 50/50 between UAE residents and students from abroad. In 2007, nearly 70 per cent of the class was UAE-based.
“Now we have students travelling each month from Russia, Uzbekistan, Iran, India, Senegal, Egypt, Jordan and even people from London,” says Denise Johnsen, London Business School’s senior recruitment and admissions manager in Dubai “The reason they come here is because they want to establish a network in the GCC.”

The growth in demand for MBAs is also linked to the global trend of individuals from outside the finance industry finding value in acquiring an MBA to get ahead in their respective fields.
“At the moment there is a more balanced intake across the world,” says Nigel Banister, Manchester’s chief global officer. “There is no doubt that MBAs have always been regarded as pre-requisite for senior positions in the financial sector, but many other sectors that were not embracing them before do so now.”

The palette of MBAs offered in the UAE ranges from regular university degrees to specialised and executive MBAs, which are geared toward a varied calibre of individuals, with different financial means and needs. Executive MBAs target individuals in the higher echelons of companies or businessmen keen to learn leadership skills needed in times of boom and crisis.
Some schools prefer to offer just general MBAs, while others have specialisations, such as Cass, which offers four areas that include Islamic finance.

Students who seek MBAs look for different qualities in their programmes. Many are interested in programmes that offer opportunity to take some courses on other campuses to gain a different learning experience from their classmates. For Emirati students, the choice of school is also linked to accreditation. Dubai government’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA) accredits the business schools and universities in the emirate’s free zones, but accreditation at federal UAE level has a different set of criteria. These variations could create problems for Emirati employees working for the Abu Dhabi government, but studying for an MBA at a Dubai school.

“We place emphasis on global accreditation and we work with KHDA, which has a global perspective,” says Nick van der Walt, Hult’s executive director and dean in Dubai.
“We certainly understand that the federal ministry has a different set of standards that apply to different types of universities.”

Opening an overseas branch can be risky and costly to a school, with its biggest asset being its quality of education, which can be easily impacted if professors and resources are stretched. That’s why many of the top schools limit classes to a select group in order to distinguish themselves from the fray.

“We want to mix nationalities so that people can learn from each other and we want to mix industries. We will not allow too many people from one country or one nationality or industry to dominate,” says Hult’s van der Walt.

Setting a high standard for enrollment means that many of the top MBA schools are expensive. Today, many MBA seekers no longer enjoy company or government sponsorship.

“At the beginning, there was more government employees because training budgets were healty. In 2007, between 65 to 70 per cent of students were sponsored by companies or other entities,” says Ehsan Razavizadeh, Cass’ regional director. “When the financial crisis started, we saw a big decline in sponsorships, which have now gone down to 10 per cent.”

The Middle East region as a whole is not as supportive to its workforce as multinationals in the West, which tend to invest more in their employees and encourage them to attain MBAs when the money is flowing.

“It is certainly an issue, particularly in the region, because companies within the Middle East don’t see investment in talent development as a priority. Because labour mobility is so high, maybe companies are afraid of not retaining people,” says INSEAD’s Gimeno. “But if they support them, this is a way to retain their best talent in the company. For local Emiratis, Saudis, Bahrainis or Kuwaitis there is more company support.”

The tightening of purse strings in the region and across the globe drove schools to beef up their scholarship programmes and work with banks to help MBA seekers finance their degrees. INSEAD for example, offers a scholarship funded by the school’s alumni for social entrepreneurship.

“Each university has its own ways of handling the financing,” says Hult’s Van der Walt. “We monitor those who are employed immediately after finishing their education to ensure our graduates are highly competitive and sought after in the job market.”

The financial crisis has altered the mix of students seeking an MBA education. A greater number of entrepreneurs are attaining degrees to gain skills to set up or grow their businesses rather than the pre-crisis trend of professionals from areas such as construction and finance.

“Since 2008, there has been a 40 per cent increase in the number of applications and enquires from entrepreneurs,” says Cass’ Razavizadeh. “During the crisis, people realised it was a good time to set up their own businesses and an MBA can help with achieving their goals.”

The rise in the number of entrepreneurs seeking MBAs is partly due to mass layoffs from financial institutions, which left many employees jobless.

“Many of big global names that we know like Google started in financial downturns, and, not surprisingly, if investment banks are not taking as many people then ambitious people will seek alternative ways to satisfy their ambitions,” says Manchester’s Banister. “It is almost entrepreneurship by necessity.”

The diversity aspect of classes is a major attraction for applicants, who look at MBAs as opportunities to build contacts and learn from their peers how business is conducted in one industry versus another.

“One of our students was a very successful manager at Ernst and Young, but he quit the corporate world to set up a charity and he is now opening up his own schools i
n India,” says London’s Johnsen. “We also had a liver transplant surgeon who wanted to do an MBA because he didn’t know how to run a hospital.”