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Location, location, location: How cities help attract MBA students

Montreal has the second-highest ratio of university students to total population among North American cities.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

For Jean-Francois Sauger the decision to do his MBA at the Schulich School of Business at York University was mostly based on the usual criteria, such as its reputation and courses. But it was also, in large part, he said, because the school is situated in Toronto.

Having already worked for a couple of years there, the Paris native said, "I really wanted to come back and live in Toronto."

As various Canadian cities score high marks in international rankings on livability, cultural amenities and affordability, business schools located in those cities are taking advantage of the appeal as they travel the world recruiting international MBA students.

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"In terms of how we sell Schulich and the attractiveness of Schulich," said Marcia Annisette, the school's executive director of student services and international relations, "Toronto in itself is an attractive destination for many reasons, and is the ideal place to study business."

Canada already offers foreign business students like Mr. Sauger an enviable deal: a three-year work permit upon completion of a two-year program. "That's a big advantage that Canada has over the U.S.," he said.

But as Leigh Gauthier, acting director of recruitment and admissions at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, pointed out, other features matter to prospective students, as well. "When you're uprooting yourself and looking to invest two-plus years in a new location, you want to make sure you know that it's going to be a fit for who you are, and what you're looking for in a city," she said.

The latest Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) annual ranking of the world's top 50 cities for students placed two Canadian cities in high positions. In the ranking, which draws on a range of data sources, Montreal came in eighth, followed by Toronto at ninth, and Vancouver in the 12th spot.

All three rose in this year's ranking, which is based on 18 criteria in five areas, including student mix, affordability, quality of living and employment opportunities. Along with safety and average tuition cost, it also grades cities on criteria as diverse as the price of a Big Mac, using a survey published by The Economist Intelligence Unit, and tolerance and inclusion, based on the Social Progress Index, a measure of human well-being created by U.S. non-profit the Social Progress Imperative and the World Economic Forum.

The reputation of the city, not only the school itself, is now an additional selling point, recruiters say.

"The livability of the city, the diversity, the mild weather, the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and sport all year round is certainly something we highlight whenever we go abroad," said Laura Rojo, former director of market intelligence, recruitment and admissions at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business in Vancouver.

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Whether at networking events or presentations in collaboration with Canadian embassies, potential candidates "do express an interest" in what Vancouver has to offer. "In situations where they are maybe comparing different Canadian schools, that happens all the time," she said.

At Rotman, the benefit of living in Toronto, which scored high in quality of living, "is only one piece," said Ms. Gauthier, "but it is a factor. We attend fairs around the world to attract students to Rotman, and as part of our presentation, we have a segment on Toronto."

With North America's second-highest ratio of university students to total population, it's no surprise that Montreal scores high in the QS student mix category. At HEC Montréal, the city's image as a vibrant and cosmopolitan city "is an important part of the background," said Federico Pasin, a HEC professor and director of international activities. "It's a plus, so that someone from France or China will say, 'I want to study in a good university, but I also want to go somewhere that will be exciting for me.' "

Featured on HEC's website, in webinars, and at student fairs, Montreal itself, he added, "is a key element in the things we present to students."

While most of HEC's foreign students are from France, a sizable percentage now comes from China. They want to be in Montreal, said Mr. Pasin, "because we speak French and they plan to work in Africa. For them, Africa is the next China and French would be a great asset."

However, a large number of foreign students hope to stay and work in Canada after completing their degrees. That means their choice of school is also going to be based on the kinds of economic activities in the city where the school is located.

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At Sauder, for example, an emphasis on high-tech and social entrepreneurship is growing, said Ms. Rojo, because of what is going on in Vancouver. Life sciences are also getting a new focus as the B.C. government invests in making the city a North American hub for the health-care, pharma and biotech sectors.

In Toronto, said Ms. Gauthier, the city's position as a financial powerhouse "is certainly very attractive to a traditional MBA. But there are other growth industries as well, like health care, technology and consulting."

"The fact that students have access to some of the country's top business leaders is a selling point," Ms. Annisette agreed.

What's more, the city's diversity, vibrant cultural scene and global reach don't draw just foreign students to Schulich, she said. "We are also able to recruit some of the top faculty in the world and I would say it's because of the luxury of being in Toronto."

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