Oliver Ashby, Senior Manager - Recruitments and Admissions, London Business School
Despite being ranked at 4th place right after Harvard, Stanford and Wharton in the Financial Times Global MBA rankings two years in a row, UK's London Business School (LBS) has seen lower MBA applications in recent years, partly because of the UK's stricter visa rules that allow graduates lesser time to look for a job in the UK after completing their education. Oliver Ashby, who leads the MBA admissions efforts at LBS however argues that by structuring one's MBA at LBS carefully, students can get upto eight months to look for a job in London. Read more in his interview with PaGaLGuY.
The UK is today seen as especially tough to study and work in due to tighter visa regulations for non-Europeans. Can you clear the air about how the visa rules affect prospective LBS applicants?
Although there have been changes in regulations over the last few years, in some ways, not a lot has changed for London Business School students. When the visa regulations were first announced, we were quite sure it would affect our students greatly. Fortunately, the British government recognised that London Business School is an institute of excellence. We are bringing future business leaders to London. Some of them stay in London and the others go back to other parts of the world to contribute there.
For students coming from India, we have still managed to recruit and bring in the similar numbers that we always have; in fact more in case of some programmes. What we are really excited about is that the visa process has become much more clear. Some changes have happened this year to make it clearer. I think one of the major problems that the Indian applicants faced was the lack of clarity in the process. The new system, where the school actually provides on-boarding and help, is getting much better.
We at LBS have hired someone with qualifications in immigration so she can dispense tailored advice to students to tell them what exactly they need to do to ensure that they get a visa. She will provide advice at every level to make sure you come through. In the worst case scenario where your visa gets rejected, she will give you advice on how to reapply and how to approach the UK Border Association correctly.
At the same time, the great thing about Britain is that we’ve still got the student visa regulation in which if you come here as a business school student, your spouse or partner can work. This is something which I thought would be removed but it has continued. This is hugely valuable to some of our Indian students and alleviates a lot of the financial burden of staying here if your spouse is working or can have some kind of paid employment. Also, the other good thing is that the visa regulation hasn’t changed for Indian students. Any non-EU student getting a visa can still get internships, projects work, etc which again really helps in terms of the finances incurred throughout the programme.
Are there cases in which people get admitted to LBS yet their visas are rejected? If yes, what are the reasons?
What I want to say here is that pretty much all of them end up coming in the end. Often, when people’s visas get rejected, we do a lot of work with on-boarding our students. It’s not the end of the world. They get back and reapply. Often, it’s quite simply some errors in their application. This is why we advise students applying to the UK to check with an immigration lawyer or any other advice points to make sure that their papers are in order. Often, when you reapply, you do get the visa. In fact, no one from India this year for the MBA programme failed to join the programme due to visa regulations. Of the 30 Indian students we have, the visas of probably 2-3 were rejected the first time. But they were able to come after reapplying. So if you do get rejected the first time, you ultimately do get a visa the next time.
Once someone graduates from LBS, how much time do they have to look for a job of their preference?
That can vary from institution to institution. As per the visa rules, you have 3 months after graduation to look for a job. But LBS students can graduate in 15, 18 or 21 months depending on how they structure their programme. You have to take 8-12 electives in the second year. But if you finish all your electives by Christmas, you can spend all your time, which could be upto eight months, looking for a job while still being a student here. While the three month period ends towards the end of summer, most people are already employed by that time. The employment rate at LBS is at 92% at the time of graduation. Also another thing is that a lot of our students get jobs from their internships. So if they get an offer, they accept it.
So by timing electives carefully, can one buy time to search for jobs?
It’s really how you use your term in the second year. The second year is usually an exercise in finding a job. Most of our students have already got a job by the summer. The second year is much more flexible. You can do electives in a 10-week format. You do a period of study for 1-2 weeks or you do a block week. All our students maximise their time by taking these intensive block weeks. This frees up their time to go and meet recruiters, chat with them and basically concentrate on their career search.
What do people in Asia ask you the most when you travel there for admission information sessions?
India is a great marketplace because it’s very educated. I love going to India and the students know a lot about the MBA market. They have very well-understood goals. A lot of questions are about return on investment. It’s a lot of money, can I afford it? If I come to London, can I get a job in London afterwards? What’s the programme like and will I fit into the programme? These are the questions we get.
There are many ways to answer the questions. One of the things I look at, are the rankings. In the Financial Times rankings, we recently came fourth globally. We came top in ‘Aims Achieved’, which is a really good thing because it means that our students are satisfied and get out with what they want. This might be a job, a great network or an overall brilliant experience. Most of our students get jobs in the UK. The great thing about London is that it’s multicultural. Recruiters will hire irrespective of nationalities. So that’s a concern we address.
The great thing about London Business School is that we really have a diverse class. 91% of the students are non-UK. When you join up an MBA study group, you have 6-7 people from different countries and industries. In the US, most students will still be from the US. It’s great for an Indian student to be with a Chinese, a Latin American, European or a Brit. I believe that there’s a huge amount of value; and you get probably as much from the world-class faculty we have.
How many applicants did you get last year for the MBA programme?
Two and a half thousand. For us, it’s interesting. You might say that the numbers aren’t amazing as compared to a US school. But the quality has remained and has even gotten higher. Fortunately, we’re interviewing more people this year than we did last year. That, for me, is more important because it suggests that there are more quality people increasing and are still there.
How has the kind of students you admit changed as a result of the economic crisis?
It’s interesting. I’ve found that we’ve always been very popular in the Indian market. And we’re delighted that we are. We receive many applications every year. We’ve changed vastly from when I first joined, partly due to the economic crisis and partly due to the changes in the way higher education exists now. But we used to get a lot of people based on their goals in consulting and finance. We still do but we have an increasing number of people interested in entrepreneurship. We also have more people from what we call industry – anything from boiler gas, pharmaceuticals or the new tech companies. Google just trebled the amount of interns they took from us this year. These kind of companies are becoming ever more popular in terms of candidates going to them for careers.
We have an Entrepreneurship Summer School where you can build on your business ideas and even be invested in. So you come in from India and if you have a fantastic business idea, you can meet a European business partner. So you have that access to get your idea off the ground.
Have you become more scrutinising about evaluating a candidate’s post-MBA goals since the crisis?
We get fewer people who are looking to go into investment banking as compared to earlier times. India is a country that is ahead of the curve as compared to an average global MBA applicant. It’s rare to have an applicant who wants to go into investment banking as opposed to people who want to be entrepreneurs. If an applicant is really good and they’ve got unrealistic goals, we have an interview where we tell him that "Look, you’ve got this background and you want to do this. But there aren’t many jobs in that area especially if you’re doing a career change. So what’s your plan B? Would you consider doing something else because finance might not be that easy for you?" Nothing is impossible but if certain things are hard. But we manage expectations in that area.
Does the career services team also participate in admissions?
Yes. I run an Admissions Committee throughout the year and Career Services give us cutting edge information about things that are very popular like private equity or the consulting market. While finance jobs might not be so many as there used to be, there’s still a huge amount of consulting roles which are very popular with a number of candidates all over the world. Big industry players are recruiting heavily. I don’t think the economic crisis has damaged the recruitment market; it’s only diversified it.
How has the programme evolved in the last 5 years?
What we try to do at the MBA programme is to achieve diversity. Every business school says they are a diverse school but we really put our money where our mouth is when it comes to diversity. We try to innovate wherever possible. For example, we create global business experiences. What I mean by that is that we assess students on compulsory piece of work done in five different global locations. If you’re an MBA student, you will spend a week on the ground doing a project with some of our senior faculty members. In fact, we’re doing one next week in Mumbai. Around 90 students are going with Rajesh Chandy who’s an incredible faculty member and a professor on strategy and entrepreneurship. He’s working with microfinance organisations – very small businesses in Mumbai. These students will split into groups and actually try to bring value to these small businesses in the course of a week and be assessed against that.
We just finished one in Christmas in a township in Johannesburg. The feedback from the students was that it was the most valuable part of the MBA to actually get out on the ground and have this amazing experience. That’s one example of how we innovate and change the programme. One of the most important things about the business school is that London itself is such an amazing city to come and do an MBA in. We try and make sure that we make the most out of London. So we get them involved in projects with iconic London businesses whether it’s a matter exchange in the old cities or the textiles and warehouses in the East End. They even go to big organisations and learn how to pitch their ideas to advertising executives in Saatchi & Saatchi, etc. There’s a huge amount of integration with London which I think is a stand-out feature of our MBA programme.
Which are the top nationalities in the current MBA batch?
We have 62 nationalities in the programme right now. No one’s really that big but the biggest representation is Europe and that’s about 24%. The US is about 10-12%. Latin America taken together is about 12-15%. The good thing is that we don’t really have one massive group. I went to an undergraduate institution had many international students. But because there were so many British students, the Indian guys would hang out together and the Chinese guys would hang out together. But here, there’s no majority. Everyone really gets together and the boundaries are knocked down.
In the recruitment report on your site, you've reported that Latin Americans are the largest group to go back to their home countries for jobs followed by Asians, 45% of whom went back. What kind of jobs are these graduates going back to?
It varies. Latin America and India are very exciting countries to do business in at the moment. We have great networks in these countries. There are great opportunities to go back to and do something different. Family business is big and it’s one of our core activities at London Business School; we’ve got a big research centre for family business. We have a lot of Indians coming from family businesses. They come here, get their business expertise and go back. An MBA gives you a bit of everything – marketing, operations – a business toolkit if you like.
Also, it’s not just family business. Latin America has a booming real estate and finance market. So a lot of people want to join a booming real estate or finance business. Or they have business ideas and they want to go back to a booming area and create a business. Entrepreneurship is also popular. Rajesh Chandy teaches the elective on Growth in Emerging Markets which shows you the opportunities in countries that are growing at 8-9% of GDP. So with the skills that you learn at LBS, you can go back and build a business.
For example, a really good friend of mine came to the MBA here. He’s a Mexican who wanted to work in banking. He got a job with HSBC and worked there for a couple of years. Now he’s going back to Peru to work for his family business which is in the mining industry. He wanted to do those couple of years in finance. Now he’s going back to working to expand his mining business.
Which jobs are the Asians going back to?
Indians are huge on family businesses from different industries – manufacturing, IT, energy. Energy is very popular in these markets. We don’t really like to use the term emerging markets, as these are emerged markets. Energy is popular in India and a lot of things with solar energy and sustainability are going on. Consulting is big; you have the big consulting groups like Bain, McKinsey, BCG hiring for Asia. And you have all the big industry players like Schlumberger. Generally in an MBA, if you were to do an industry path, you would generally come from Schlumberger as an engineer and go back as a strategic consultant.
Generally speaking, is it more tempting for the school to admit a student from a family business because the school wouldn't have to worry about his post-MBA future in a slowed down economy?
For Admissions, most people who come here from family businesses are looking for a bridge before they go back. They want to get a job at a corporate before they go back. They definitely want an internship and that still requires competition and work from both our end and their end. We can't hand people internships but we will help them as much as we can. I never view family business students as an easier option because we still have a duty to provide them with as much support as they want in terms of what they want to experience. It’s the same with company-sponsored students as well. They might choose not to go back to their sponsor and that happens quite a lot.
How has the pattern for financing the MBA changed in recent times?
We are in final talks with a loan provider called Prodigy Finance. We are hoping that it’ll happen this year. It’s not a bank but a peer-to-peer lending service. The model is that schools and alumni get together to pool in money which they package out in the form of loans. It’s a better option than using a bank. And it doesn’t even need a local co-signer. Anyone can get it; anyone from the MBA programme.
Historically, international loans from banks involve a lot of back-and-forth and you have to produce all your bank statements and paperwork. With Prodigy, you apply online and within 48 hours, you can get the loan. It’s super easy.
Can one fund the entire tuition and living expenses with it?
We’ve never really had a full funding model. You’re always going to need some of your own money. I’ve always advised everybody this: if you’re doing an international MBA, you need to get some savings together. If nothing else, even if you could, you could leverage that much. We have a lot of scholarships for Asian students. About a third of our student body gets scholarships and they are offered that on a financial need basis. Most of our students can expect to get a funding of around GBP 10,000 from the internship they do. Most will do at least one, if not two.
What percentage of the tuition is self-funded and how much do they fund from scholarships?
It’s difficult because we used to have a loan scheme which is now gone. So the stats are a bit messed up over the last couple of years. I would advise people to fund 20-30% of the tuition fee from their own funds. It varies because if you’re coming with a dependent as many of our students do, obviously it’ll be more expensive. If you’re coming with a child, it’ll be more expensive. The tuition fees are around GBP 50,000 a year. I would expect savings to be around GBP 20,000; then there are loans and scholarships.
It’s a big investment. When I say these numbers, it sounds like a lot of money. I look at the rankings and we’ve got one of the highest weighted salary increases. So you pay a lot of money upfront, but graduates are remunerated well to pay that back quickly. A lot of employers and corporate recruiters give out lumpsum bonuses which would go some way to pay off the debts.
From your MBA batch profile of last year, there are practically no Indians with IT services or outsourcing background, arguably the most common India profile. Is it really so hard for someone from an IT outsourcing background to gather the kind of experience that would meet the LBS admissions standards?
It’s an interesting question. When it comes to BPO, the important thing is quality. Wipro and Tata have done fantastic work and we’ve got some really good students from these companies. But it’s all about goals and where you want to go. A lot of people with IT background want to go into management consultancy and I tell them to have bigger goals than that. Management consulting is one pathway but your expertise might be better suited elsewhere. There’s no problem in having a goal of getting into McKinsey or Bain but I wouldn’t be that specific.
There are interesting companies crying out for the kind of IT expertise that students from the IT outsourcing industry have. We get feedback from tech companies like Google saying that they need students with some tech experience because it helps them. If they would be more interested in broader companies outside of strategic consulting, it would help them get into a top school.
But strategic consultancy firms may not necessarily be looking for someone like that. If I was a guy with a lot of experience in a BPO firm or technology, I would be a bit more broad about my MBA goals. These guys always have super high GMAT scores and great undergraduate grades from top Indian schools. If they were just more pragmatic about their career goals, it would help them.
Would using an MBA for going back to the tech industry be considered an ambitious enough goal for such applicants?
We work with all kinds of companies. What you get into after your MBA is quite different from where you come from. You might come from an IT company where you were managing software. If you go back to Wipro or Tata, they will look to put you in a strategic management level. You may be doing less of IT and more of organisational behaviour.
Your class age range is 23-37. Who is this person who is 23 and how did he get in?
European business schools tend to tilt towards admitting more senior people. The US schools have more junior people. But we do take super strong people with two years experience. Often they are superstars with international experience like the World Bank or top consultancies. They’ve already worked in a similar kind of model as a b-school study group. They’ve worked overseas, managed a lot of projects and done some exceptional work in a two-year space.
What’s the difference between a 23-year-old who is fit for a pre-experienced MSc programme and somebody who is fit for an MBA programme?
We have a pre-experienced programme which is a kind of a minimal programme and then we have the MBA programme. The key thing about the MBA programme is that the classes are crucially like debates. A lot of it is case-based and on your experience. You draw on experience and go into a group and talk about your experience in accounting, finance, military, etc. What I look for in a 23-year-old is that experience. I see that he has worked at XYZ in Israel and he’s worked in very difficult streams and positions and has come through shining. I know they can cope with the class and more importantly, add value in that context as opposed to someone who is 23 and has a lot of potential but haven’t really done enough yet to add value to a 37-year-old. In which case I would say no or tell them to reapply in a couple of years’ time.
How are you treating the integrated reasoning (IR) section in the GMAT during admissions?
It’s still very new and we’re getting our heads around it. It’s useful for us in many ways. We were quite heavily involved as a school both in the creation and in the process of rolling it out as a discipline. For those who are taking the GMAT, it is worthwhile and it’s worth focussing on. Obviously we look at the main score. Integrated reasoning is a great way for us to probe further into skills that you might encounter in a classroom, our ability to cope with different data points and also to multitask.
It also gives us an insight into an area we’re not sure about in the application. We ask for essays but there’s still analytical writing. So if we are not sure about the essays, we check the analytical writing score. A lot of schools have these questions – so they did well on the quant, they have a good verbal score but will they be still able to cope as expected with the MBA programme because there are a lot of other skills outside of these areas. So I look at the Integrated Reasoning score.
So if I saw a low integrated reasoning score, I would look closely at the entire application again, the essays and the references to see if there’s anything missing. If they have a high Integrated Reasoning score, it suggests that they will cope very quickly with the MBA class.
In this year’s applicant pool, you have a mix of people with and without IR scores. How are you comparing the two?
Obviously, we can’t do much about it if someone doesn't have the IR score. In my view, we have to give them benefit of doubt. What we don’t do is directly compare someone with integrated reasoning score and someone without it. For me, the IR score is a bonus and tells us more about you. It’s an extra point of reassurance about your ability to perform in the classroom. It’s not that you’re completely disadvantaged if you don’t have an integrated reasoning score. I would say that if people don’t have an IR score and they’re considering retaking the GMAT, it’s not going to be a deal-breaker. Anyone with an average of 700 or above shouldn’t spend too much time retaking the GMAT just for the Integrated Reasoning score.
Going forward, you will have people taking the GMAT with the IR score. But some might still apply with their old pre-June 2012 scores. Which one would you prefer?
I think it is okay to apply with the old score too. While we do look at the GMAT, we look at the application holistically. The GMAT is just one part of it. I wouldn’t invest too much time retaking it. We only look at top scores. We don’t look at the other scores. If you feel your GMAT score is weak, consider retaking it. But I wouldn’t advise it otherwise. You’re much better off writing good essays, submitting good references and working on the general application.
British newspapers these days are talking about continued crunched living costs in London for another three years. What is the current sentiment in your MBA batch about the benefits of working in London versus looking for jobs in healthier economies?
The great thing about LBS is that we have this wonderful alumni committee of 30,000 alums in 100 different countries and many of them are based in London. So you have great family already before you even get started. When it comes to doing an MBA, London and LBS is the place to be. As a city, no other speaks more languages than we do here. To stay here afterwards, the opportunities are phenomenal. I do think it’s tremendous if you live here. I wouldn’t argue that it’s cheap; no doubt it’s expensive. But the salaries are also higher. You’re talking of a top b-school and a top-class workforce in the world. They do stay connected. We had our alumni reunion a week ago. We had thousands of alums from all over the world staying in London, still working here and still connected with the school. Some of our admission interviews are done by alumni. At the moment, we’re doing 500 MBA interviews and lot of them are being done in London with our alumni because they’re still so attached to the school that they come back and do interviews for us.