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Simon Fraser MBA student Andres Sanchez Vasco is from Colombia, one of four students in his cohort from Latin America, an increasingly important recruitment target for many Canadian business schools.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

When Colombia-born Andres Sanchez Vasco decided to pursue a master of business administration – “a rite of passage” to becoming a senior executive, in his view – he wanted to study abroad in an immigrant-friendly country where he and his wife could work legally while he earned his degree and afterward.

Those criteria put Canada at the top of his list, thanks to welcoming rules (compared with other countries) that permit international postsecondary students to work here for up to three years after graduating from a full-time program, with spouses allowed to work as well.

In September, Mr. Sanchez Vasco joined the incoming class at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business in Vancouver, one of four students from Latin America, an increasingly important recruitment target for many Canadian business schools.

“My wife and I wanted to come together,” says Mr. Sanchez Vasco, a 34-year-old former financial analyst from Bogota who eyes a career in a different sector after graduation. “If we went to any other place in the world, she would not be able to work.”

For its study and work rules, competitive tuition costs and other factors, Canada is gaining ground in attracting international MBA candidates. The uptick in interest is a welcome trend for Canadian business schools, many with flat or waning domestic demand for full-time MBA programs.

In a recent global survey, the Graduate Management Admission Council reported that international student applications to Canada rose 16.4 per cent this year over 2017, compared with 15.1 per cent for Asia-Pacific schools, 3.4 per cent in Europe but a drop of 10.5 per cent to the United States.

Canada’s surge in international applications masks an 11.2-per-cent drop in domestic applications, as reported by Virginia-based GMAC. However, the volume of overseas applications is almost three times that of domestic students, which meant overall applications to Canada grew 7.7 per cent this year over 2017. Applications to Asia-Pacific, fuelled by within-region growth, rose 8.9 per cent compared to a 3.2-per-cent rise in Europe and a decline of nearly 7 per cent for the United States.

“It is not just a political thing,” says Gregg Schoenfeld, director of research for GMAC. “We have seen a shift away from the U.S. as quality education has been growing outside the U.S., and economic conditions are changing.”

Typically, in a strong economy, prospective students stay working rather than leave for an MBA.

Even with anti-immigrant rhetoric and tightening rules in the United States, Britain and the rest of Europe, students remain eager to study and work outside their home country. MBA candidates want to broaden their experience and enrich their résumé, Mr. Schoenfeld says, while employers are hungry for skilled candidates who add diversity to the work force.

Beedie dean Ali Dastmalchian says this year “we noticed a huge increase in our application pool from international students.” Foreign students accounted for 85 per cent of all applications to Beedie’s two full-time programs ­­– an MBA and a master of science in finance – up from 80 per cent last year. However, the proportion of Canadians in the 45-member MBA class is unchanged at about 40 per cent, with students from about 20 countries making up the remainder.

Andrew Gemino, Beedie’s associate dean of graduate programs, says “[student] diversity is super important,” with the school stepping up recruitment in the Middle East and Latin America.

Other schools also put a premium on diversity.

At HEC Montréal, overseas students accounted for 53.8 per cent of all applications to the full-time French and English MBA tracks. Despite a high volume of candidates from China and India, the school enrols students from 29 countries, with Canadians representing 55 per cent of the class.

“You have to reach some balance in the group,” says HEC dean Michel Patry, noting a 38-per-cent rise in total applications this year over 2017. “The cachet of the MBA is important.”

Though GMAC data show global applications are flat this year compared to 2017, Dr. Patry is among those convinced about the long-term resiliency of the MBA.

“I still think the MBA has a great future,” he says. “You have all those cadres – a large number of executives training in [undergraduate] business, engineering and science – who at some point want to take on line positions.”

Not surprisingly, global competition for top MBA candidates is keen.

In adding to its global recruitment strategy several years ago, the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management intensified efforts in Latin America. This year, Rotman enrolled more than 50 candidates from the region, up from 18 four years ago, in a total class of almost 350 full-time MBA students.

Last month, the school added to its recruitment arsenal, holding a joint event with Bank of Nova Scotia in Lima for Peruvian prospective students. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, the school invited prospective students to a session featuring Rotman MBA alumni born in Latin America.

“They are brand ambassadors for Rotman abroad,” Leigh Gauthier, assistant director of recruitment admissions for the school, says of alumni. Sometimes, the school pays some or all of the costs to fly a preferred candidate to Toronto for a campus visit.

Two years ago, recognizing that a high proportion of Latin American candidates are married, Rotman introduced career counselling for spouses (of any students in the class) who want to work in Canada. “It has been met with huge success,” Ms. Gauthier says. For its high-touch activities, Rotman makes the top-10 list of global business schools ranked by the Association of International Graduate Admission Consultants for responsiveness to candidates.

For many international students, MBA fairs held in their home region are an efficient way to meet global business school representatives in person, beyond reading websites or listening to friends.

Mr. Sanchez Vasco, for example, attended a fair in Bogota that drew recruiters from Beedie in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland and half a dozen other schools from Canada. By chance, he contacted and received helpful advice from a now-Beedie professor who had been his instructor at a Brussels business school when Mr. Sanchez Vasco earned a master of finance in 2016.

Though steeped in technical knowledge of finance, Mr. Sanchez Vasco says he still wanted an MBA for “the tools to become a manager and the soft skills I need to make a breakthrough into the C-suite.”

In the end, he says chose Beedie for its West Coast location and program content featuring sustainability and Indigenous issues, both topics of concern to him. “I come from a country where the Indigenous way of life is not so respected and where we have a lot of natural resources but they are not properly taken care of,” he says.

Two months after arriving in Canada, Mr. Sanchez Vasco says he and his wife, Diana Sofia, are settling in to a new life, both of them studying, working and enjoying the outdoors. “We have felt welcome and it is not difficult to make this our environment.”

Follow Jennifer Lewington on Twitter @JenLewington or contact her at

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