Best MBA Programs

Why Canadian MBA programs want to attract more international students

With domestic enrolment showing lacklustre growth, Canadian MBA schools are increasingly competing to attract more international students

Canada‘s Best MBA Programs 2017
Gabriel Werkhaizer

Gabriel Werkhaizer, a native of Brazil, is completing his MBA at McGill University, mainly because Canada is welcoming to immigrants. (Portrait by Richmond Lam)

Gabriel Werkhaizer may have managed multi­million-dollar budgets in his hometown of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, but it was only this year that he learned how to say some financial words in English, such as “accruals.” The 30-year-old moved to Montreal last year with his wife and two-year-old daughter to earn his MBA degree at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. Despite a couple of gaps in his lexicon, Werkhaizer came to Canada for the top-tier education, but mainly because he wanted to live in a country where an accent and foreign status wouldn’t spell doom and discrimination for his family. “Our plan was to move somewhere permanently, and I wanted a place that was friendly to immigrants,” he says.

Like Werkhaizer, many international students have picked Canada as the place to earn an MBA degree. In fact, international students make up the majority of MBA cohorts at institutions such as York University’s Schulich School of Business, Vancouver Island University, University of Victoria and Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business.

Canada is among the top study destinations for prospective MBA students, along with the United States and United Kingdom. In 2015, our B-schools received more international applicants than any other country, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), making up 73% of all MBA applications. Most came from India, followed by China, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the United States. This past February, Global Affairs Canada unveiled a new education brand called EduCanada, a marketing initiative that will ramp up the country’s reputation as a best-in-class destination while showcasing Canadian MBA schools in six high-growth markets: Brazil, China, India, Mexico, North Africa and the Middle East.

Opening the doors to overseas students isn’t really about being a do-gooder nation; it’s a demographic necessity for MBA schools. Domestic enrolment is relatively stagnant, while interest in business education is growing abroad. International graduate students also pay twice as much in tuition and fees as Canadians, boosting revenue for post-secondary institutions. The benefits extend beyond MBA schools, too. International students created some 90,000 jobs for Canadians and spent more than $10 billion in Canada in 2015, according to Global Affairs Canada. That’s more than the country’s export value of each of wheat, softwood lumber and aluminum.

“The economic benefits of hosting international students are huge, and the gains aren’t just in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. They’re widely distributed across the country,” says Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, an advocacy organization that represents 97 institutions. For MBA schools—and the businesses that hire grads—the future is increasingly international.

In Werkhaizer’s book, Canada scored major points over the U.S. and U.K., because immigration-friendly policies mean he’ll be able to complement his MBA degree with Canadian citizenship down the road.

“I already feel like Canada is my country,” he says.

The demographic trends at home don’t necessarily favour post-secondary schools. Canada’s population is growing older, with a smaller pool of working-age people. It’s a different story in emerging markets. “There’s lots of interest in studying abroad in these countries. There’s a growing middle class that’s looking for high-quality education,” says Ian Robertson, MBA associate director at University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business.

In the race to attract international students—particularly from China and India—Canadian schools have a number of advantages. Applicants like the reputation and affordability of Canadian degrees, and they’re often looking to improve their English skills and launch an international career, according to GMAC. They also know they can get an automatic three-year work permit after two years of study. “Canada’s visa requirements are much more flexible than other countries’, which gives us an edge,” says Tim Daus, executive director of the Canadian Federation of Business School Deans. “That makes a big difference for students who want to stay and work afterwards.”

As a result, Canadian universities are aggressively pursuing international students to fill up classrooms and bring in revenue. Many set up regional offices in other countries so they can actively recruit around the clock. They also take part in a number of MBA tours—the QS World MBA and Access MBA tours are two of the largest—that hit up dominant markets like India and China, as well as emerging ones around the world. Representatives travel from city to city setting up booths at fairs, hoping to nab the attention of bright students in a sea of hungry schools.

Brock Dykeman, MBA program director for Vancouver Island University (VIU), says ever since the school participated in the EduCanada tour in India two years ago, applications from that market “went through the roof.” Priscilla Samuel was one of those applicants. She noticed VIU’s booth at a fair in her hometown of Chennai, India, and found out it offered a dual MBA and master of science in international management degree. “I’d never even heard of VIU, but once I knew about the dual degree, I knew I was going to study there. Who would want to pass up getting two degrees in the same time as getting one?” says Samuel, who’s currently completing her second year.

British Columbia schools do a good job of attracting students like Samuel. They have a higher percentage of international students than any other province; they also happen to have the warmest winters in Canada, a fact Dykeman admits he’ll play up in order to appeal to students averse to below-zero temperatures. Siddarth Jain, an MBA candidate at University of Victoria, wasn’t so much concerned about the climate as he was pulled in by Victoria’s picturesque mountains and seemingly non-existent traffic, a stark contrast to his home city of New Delhi, where he’s only known bumper-to-bumper roads. “I couldn’t get over the deafening silence of the city when I first arrived,” says Jain. “It was so peaceful.”

Closely watched global rankings like the ones produced by the Financial Times and the Economist heavily influence where students spend their higher education dollars. Glennley Ignatius of Jakarta considered going to York, McGill and the University of British Columbia because they were three of the six Canadian schools on the FT ranking at the time he was applying. “I know I have to take rankings with a grain of salt, but there’s a reason those schools are always on top, and it’s because they are arguably the best,” says Ignatius. He ultimately decided on York’s Schulich, where he could specialize in financial services.

Likewise, rankings can stunt efforts to reel in students. China has started to see some of its own business schools crack the FT rankings, making it harder for Canadian institutions to convince students to move across the world when they could go to a top-ranked university closer to home.

The competition is fierce, no doubt, says Davidson, who points out that the U.S. and U.K. spend significantly more money recruiting in specific markets than Canada spends in total. “We’re up against some big guns. But that could change, given what’s happening with Brexit and talk of putting up walls in the U.S.,” he says. Amid such political uncertainty, several Canadian MBA schools are planning big recruitment drives. With strong roots already planted in China and India, schools like Gustavson, VIU and the University of New Brunswick will be setting their sights on Latin America, while Schulich hopes to drum up interest in Africa and Russia.

“Canada has an opportunity to seize the moment,” Davidson says. “We need to spread the word that our education is high quality and affordable, and our country is safe and welcoming.”

U-Jan Ugur moved to Ottawa one year ago to get in on the city’s sizzling startup scene. The 25-year-old student from Istanbul, Turkey, is currently completing his MBA degree at Carleton. He loves the magical winters and the fact that he can get world-class ramen, pho and pizza without having to board a flight. But he’s still trying to get used to that all-too-famous Canadian politeness. “Everyone here says ‘if you don’t mind’ every time they ask for something. If you want something done, just say it!” says Ugur with a chuckle that’s part amusement, part frustration.

Living in a new country can easily trip up even the most fully prepared student. With MBA candidates coming from all corners of the world, universities recognize they need to provide support. Sprott offers cultural competence workshops to discuss issues like plagiarism and cheating, and encourages students to speak up in class, which might not be the norm in their home countries.

“We can’t assume these students are coming in with the same expectations we have,” says Lorraine Dyke, Sprott’s associate dean. She admits it works the other way around, too. A couple of years ago, during orientation day, several Chinese students got sick after drinking coffee for the first time; they weren’t accustomed to the bitter beverage. Since then, Sprott makes sure to stock culturally appropriate foods in the cafeteria, including vegetarian options for its Indian students.

At Schulich, students whose first language is not English can take the eight-week pre-MBA program to strengthen communication skills. The school also buddies up first- and second-year international students to help them get their bearings, including setting up phone plans and bank accounts, and finding the nearest grocery store.

For Shamsha Mithani, the level of support she got from the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John program made her transition from Hyderabad, India, a breeze. Being 12,000 kilometres away from friends and family felt a little less lonely due to the campus’s friendly staff and students, even if at first she was confused by all the strangers saying hello and opening doors for her.

Last year, Mithani graduated from UNB and landed a senior manager role at a global bank in Toronto, thanks to the dinner functions her school organized and the networking cues she picked up, such as emailing potential employers shortly after meeting them. “In India, you get jobs at job fairs. It’s very different in Canada, where you have to make connections and go to all these events to get noticed,” she says.

Next year, Mithani will be eligible to apply for her permanent residence, and if that gets approved, life in Canada would look pretty swell to her. Except for maybe one thing, she says. “I really miss the food back home.”