Mention Nottingham in a conversation and for many people the first thing that comes to mind is Robin Hood.
I’ve had the Disney movie song “Robin Hood and Little John walking through the forest…” stuck in my head since visiting the city.
But the story being told here today is very different from the fable of old.
Instead of stealing from the rich to give to the poor, it’s students hoping to get rich who are flocking to this city two hours north of London.
Nottingham Business School – which is part of Nottingham Trent University – has seen a 25% rise in interest from international students this year.
That’s believed to be partially due to an unlikely source: Donald Trump.
While many Americans might have voted for the president partly because they valued his business acumen, an unlikely casualty of his immigration policies is said to be American business schools.
“One of the things we noticed post the [presidential] election in the US last November was a change in students’ expressed intent to study in the US,” says Sangeet Chowfla, the president and chief executive of the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC).
The GMAC is the non-profit organisation that administers the GMAT, a standardised test most students around the world take to get into business school.
It published a survey of 1,000 global business schools this month, which found that international student interest in American business schools had declined by nearly two-thirds since the 2016 presidential election.
Meanwhile, international student interest in programs in Canada, for example, has increased by nearly the same amount. The same goes for programs in continental Europe and the UK.
While that trend has been happening for some time, Mr Chowfla says he was surprised by the steep drop.
“The magnitude of the change was exaggerated this year,” he says.
Part of the decline was due to student concerns about immigration policies – most notably, the ability to get an H1B visa after graduating.
The H1B is typically given to “skilled” immigrants to the US, like computer programmers, and 85,000 visas are awarded each year via a lottery system.
It is often used by companies in Silicon Valley to bring in tech talent – but it has also been used by outsourcing companies.
Critics, including President Trump, have said those companies use the program to hire foreign workers instead of Americans – and he’s proposed reforming it.
That’s scared international students, particularly those pursuing business degrees, who use the programs as stepping stones to better or more well-paid careers.
A global degree
While the number of foreign business students in the US may be declining, for many American students, business remains a global enterprise.
Monica Kelly is one of those students. Though she hails from Seattle, Washington, she’s spent most of her career in Los Angeles.
“I was in a position where I reached senior management level and I was looking for a way to expand my global opportunities,” she says.
Monica decided that in order to seize those opportunities, she had to go abroad for business school. That’s how she found herself at Nottingham.
And she’s not alone.
At Nottingham, I spoke with two other students from India, and the program boasts a class made up of people from 104 countries.
Almost all of them said business was an increasingly global endeavour. Because of that, they fretted they wouldn’t be able to get international experience in the US, a country they feel has increasingly turned inwards.
That they’re attracted to a business school in the UK, however, is no accident.
“In the UK, we have gone through a period where the MBA [the main business school qualification] suffered quite a bit,” says Baback Yazdani, the dean of Nottingham Business School.
That was partially due to visa restrictions that were put in place five years ago, which limited the ability for graduate students to get post-study work visas.
Since then, Nottingham has worked hard to build its program around “experiential learning” – meaning that in addition to traditional classes, students travel abroad to work for companies in places like Italy and Rome.
The school also focused on helping students secure internships at companies that might sponsor them for visas, or that might be able to hire them in other parts of the world. Businesses close to Nottingham include Boots, which has merged with the pharmacy chain Walgreens in the US.
“Overall the MBAs are a saturated market – and it’s a global market,” says Mr Yazdani. “There are very sophisticated consumers for this market. So they know what they want and they know it’s everywhere. So they are looking for differentiators and value.”
Speaking of value – at an annual price of £16,500, or around $22,000 at today’s exchange rates – the Nottingham program is under half what most students at US business schools end up paying per year.
Lessons for the US?
Today, there are more than 5,000 students in its various business degree courses.
Nottingham’s administration says that their pivot could possibly help US schools.
“My guess is that’s probably happening now in the [US], and that the universities [there] will be going through the same trajectories,” says Nottingham Business School lecturer Phil Considine.
“We’re kind of five years ahead of them.”
In Nottingham’s atrium, banners are strung from the rafters welcoming international students, who start classes today.
Looking out through the school’s windows, you can see the beginning of the famed Sherwood Forest – where story has it Robin Hood hid out with his merry men.
For US business schools, who might not be feeling too merry, “stealing” a lesson from Nottingham might be a good way to make it through leaner times.