Caroline Charlton at Alliance Manchester
Northern soul: Caroline Charlton at Alliance Manchester in her home region, to which she says she feels ‘indebted’ © Jon Super

Caroline Charlton is what the English call a proud northerner, but also considers herself lucky to have spent time abroad. Aged 22, she left her home in the north-west, where she played football semi-professionally for Liverpool Ladies, to spend a summer captaining ACF Torino, a US women’s side in Maryland.

She returned to Liverpool to study medicine, then last year, after turning 30, decided to apply for an MBA, both to achieve credit towards surgical training and to give her an advantage if she was one day to seek a management role. Charlton could well have returned to the US, home to the majority of the world’s most prestigious business schools. One of her application criteria was a top 100 school in a global MBA ranking such as the FT’s.

This time, however, she decided to stay close to home, securing a place on the MBA at Alliance Manchester Business School, which is in the top third of the FT ranking and whose campus is 50km from Liverpool and just 30km from her home town of Macclesfield.

“I have had to self-fund my postgraduate education, so while hoping I would receive a scholarship, that meant the US was unaffordable,” Charlton says. She adds that fees for the institutions on her shortlist — London Business School, Oxford Saïd Business School, Cambridge Judge Business School and Alliance Manchester — while all in five figures, were significantly lower than at their US peers.

Charlton is far from alone in staying local, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. Last year, two-thirds of MBA providers reported a rise in domestic applications, while only half saw a rise in those from abroad. Overall, almost half of business schools reported a rise of more than 10 per cent in applications in 2020, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council, the administrator for business school entrance exams.

At Alliance Manchester there was a 31 per cent rise in domestic applications for the MBA that started this January. The increase was even larger at Vlerick Business School in Ghent, where Belgians now make up 35 per cent of the MBA class, up from 15 per cent last year. At Imperial College Business School in London, the number of domestic students rose from 42 to 56, a 33 per cent increase.

Paula Amorim is MBA and masters in management admissions director at Iese in Barcelona, where 18 per cent of the 2020 intake was Spanish, up from 15 per cent in 2019. She attributes the shift to travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Candidates are more inclined to stay closer to home during the current climate. This poses a special challenge for those interested in candidates from the US, since their home market is quite big, creating fewer incentives for candidates to look for options abroad,” says Amorim. She adds that the proportion of students from the Americas, usually a large share of Iese classes, shrank from 41 per cent to a third between 2019 and 2020.

The rise in domestic intakes is a concern for top schools, which have built their brands on offering a highly international experience in which students learn alongside, and from, a cosmopolitan mix of classmates. But defining students as domestic or international can be an oversimplification and passports often do not reflect person’s heritage, particularly in multicultural cities such as Barcelona, New York or London.

Alberta Asafo-Asamoah was born in Ghana but moved with her family to the UK aged nine. Her undergraduate degree was in the US, but last year, nearing 30, she chose Imperial College Business School in London, the city she has called home for most of her life, over the US to do an MBA.

Asafo-Asamoah says the decision was partly for family and social reasons, partly financial and partly professional. She had recently left a career in banking and started a business helping private tuition schools with teaching strategies, so had connections she wanted to maintain. She also has a house in London, which cut living costs.

“When I first thought about studying for an MBA there was that excitement about being able to move abroad, but then I looked at the costs. I also thought that if I stayed in London I would have a network that could help me with my goal of exploring entrepreneurship,” she says.

A larger domestic student intake for an MBA does not necessarily mean the course becomes less diverse, provided the mix of nationalities becomes more varied. This has been the case with the Sofaer Global MBA at Tel Aviv University. The proportion of Israeli students has doubled to a fifth for 2020-21, but the MBA has also attracted students from as far afield as Kenya and Vietnam and the number of nationalities is up from 15 to 19, according to Leslie Broudo-Mitts, the programme head. “Most of the Israeli students are recent immigrants, attracted here by the entrepreneurial culture. We have been able to teach face to face throughout this year, unlike many courses overseas, so it makes sense to come here, rather than study overseas during Covid-19.”

Broudo-Mitts views the increase in different nationalities as an expression of “courageous and future-looking leaders who are living their commitment to studying entrepreneurship, even when the challenges may seem significant. These people are the buccaneers.”

While many people are choosing to study close to home, a significant number of MBA applicants will always opt to go overseas. This has been true even under pandemic restrictions, says Chioma Isiadinso, chief executive of US-based MBA admissions consultancy Expartus. “We have experienced a growth in clients and seen higher numbers of students from around the world who are pursuing the MBA in the US despite the pandemic,” she says. “I haven’t personally seen students opting to go elsewhere, but that might be because our clients focus on the very top schools.”

For some of those who stay local, the decision can in part be a reflection of loyalty to a place. This was true for Charlton, who says she feels “indebted” to the corner of England that has been her home for most of her life. “I’m acutely aware that a large part of my success is thanks to support I received from my family, but also from the experiences I was offered here at home. And I’ve been lucky. It just so happened I have access to an amazing university right on my doorstep,” she says.

“I believe I will make a success of myself, and I want Manchester and Liverpool universities to be on my CV when that happens, so they receive the accolade they deserve.”

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