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The University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management reports a 34-per-cent spike in applications for its MBA program from international students compared to a year ago.handout

Some Canadian business schools are awash in international student applications this year, enabling recruiters to select from a deeper pool of candidates than usual and add to diversity in the classroom.

What accounts for the uptick – more than 20 per cent higher volume this year over 2016 in some cases – is a bit of a mystery. Inward-looking policies in the United States and Britain might seem like the obvious answer, but school officials caution against jumping to conclusions given other factors: their own marketing efforts and growing awareness abroad of Canada as a viable study destination.

At the halfway point in the recruitment cycle for its next MBA class this September, the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management reports a 34-per-cent spike in applications from international students compared to a year ago. Last year, the volume of applicants from abroad was strong as well, up 20 per cent over 2015.

"The uncertain times in the United Kingdom and the United States have accelerated the trend we were already seeing," says Jamie Young, director of recruitment and admissions for Rotman's full-time MBA.

Like others, he points out that interest in Canada as a study destination predates recent measures in Britain (a clampdown on incoming foreign students) and the United States (a threatened travel ban on immigrants from some countries in the Middle East and Africa).

"I would caution [against thinking] this is purely in response to the geopolitical context," he says. "The reasons candidates are choosing Rotman continue to be the same reasons."

With a current full-time MBA class of 350 students, Rotman is neither expanding its cohort for September nor revising its pitch to international students.

"We are not doing any negative messaging but the messaging we have always had at our core – that diversity is our strength – is something that more than ever is welcomed and considered," he says. "It is having an impact."

The result, he adds, is that "we are in a position where we have far more qualified applicants than we have space. We have to make some difficult decisions."

At the University of New Brunswick, Fazley Siddiq, dean of the business school at the Saint John campus, says, "We are seeing a huge increase in applications."

His school has received 404 applications so far from overseas students wishing to enroll this September, compared to 450 applications for all of 2016. In addition, more students are paying non-refundable deposits even though they may not be accepted.

"We have been aggressively marketing our program in China," Dr. Siddiq says, citing one factor for the increased number of applications.

His school typically attracts MBA candidates from India, as is the case this year, but an unexpected number of applications are arriving from several countries in South America.

His school enrolls about 85 full– and part-time MBA students. But given an expanded pool of qualified candidates, the dean expects to boost the size of this year's class by 20 per cent compared to a year ago.

According to a new survey released this week of 250 U.S. universities and colleges, 39 per cent of respondents reported a decline in international applications (for all programs, not just business), with 35 per cent recording an increase and 26 per cent seeing no change in demand. The survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers found the biggest decline in applications was from the Middle East.

Judged against increasingly stringent immigration rules in the United States and Britain – historically the top two destinations for foreign students – Canada is seen as relatively welcoming even with its own restrictions.

Dr. Siddiq says that tough Canadian visa rules blocked some students, especially from Pakistan and Nigeria, from entering his school's MBA program last year. "My concern is that academically qualified students who are accepted to the program are denied visas for no other reason than the country of origin," he says.

At Simon Fraser University's Beedie School of Business in Burnaby, B.C., international student applications to the undergraduate and MBA programs, respectively, are up 10 per cent and 20 per cent over a year ago. The school has no plans to expand its annual intake of students.

"There seems to be an increasing awareness at the student level about Canada as an option," says Andrew Gemino, associate dean of undergraduate programs. At his school, increased interest from overseas is not restricted to a single country – a helpful trend given Beedie's goal to assemble a class of academically strong students from diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.

In 2011-12, international students accounted for 24 per cent of Beedie's full-time MBA compared to more than 40 per cent in 2015-16, according to the school.

"Most schools are recognizing the best students have to be globally aware and [have to] work globally," says Dr. Gemino. "It's better to have that in the classroom."

The spike in applications at some institutions comes as Canadian business schools this year tumbled down top-tier rankings, such as the Financial Times, largely because of the weight given to MBA graduate salaries (lower in Canada than in London or on Wall Street). In a competitive global market, where rankings matter to foreign students, Canadian schools are looking for new ways to raise their profile globally.

Rising tensions elsewhere and Canada's relatively attractive immigration rules create an opening for business schools here when marketing abroad, according to Andrew Crisp, a London-based business education consultant.

"There is certainly an opportunity there," he says, citing recent surveys by his firm and others that show a drop in interest this year among foreign students in applying to business schools in the United States and Britain.

But he cautions that students now giving Canada a closer look will want assurances that studying here "will still lead to good job opportunities."

Mr. Crisp's firm, Carrington Crisp, is working with the Canadian Association of Business School Deans on new options to raise the profile of Canadian business schools, as a group, in foreign markets.

Tim Daus, executive director of the deans' association, says, "The quality of the [Canadian business school] product isn't the question. It is the understanding of the quality of product."

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