By Dan LeClair
It is well known that business is a popular field of study. The figure below recreates a chart published by UNESCO in 2009 using 2007 data (more recent data is not yet publically available). It shows that 17% of "local" tertiary-level students studied "business and administration." That's more local students than any other field. More interestingly, the proportion studying business and administration jumps to 23% for internationally mobile students (those studying abroad for a year or more). Again business claims more internationally mobile students than any other field, but we also see that these students are even more likely to study business than local students. Why?
I usually suggest three explanations. The first, and most obvious, comes from the relationship between the subject and students. Students who intend to study abroad have preferences that also make them more likely to study business. In my experience, both business and internationally mobile students tend to be curious, ambitious, and assertive, and perhaps relatively less averse to risk. Since business is increasingly a cross-border activity, it is more likely to capture the interest of international students. In contrast, primary and secondary level teachers, for example, would expect more of their careers to be centered in their home country. So, education as an area of study is a more popular subject among local students than international students. I should be careful to note that international education is also important because business is not entirely global. Management practice is still very much context specific, while approaches in some subjects, such as mathematics and sciences, may be more universal. As long as cross-border differences matter in business, we should expect international study and business education to intersect.
The second reason has more to do with the actions of schools. Compared to many academic and professional departments, business schools have been more proactive in recruiting international students. Business schools are also thought to be more entrepreneurial and independent than other academic units. In the Great Brain Race (p. 120) Ben Wildavsky wrote that business schools "were early adapters to globalization," while in a recent article the Economist goes too far, stating that "in the past decade business education has globalised more thoroughly than business itself." The main point here is that many business schools have sought to diversify student populations to enhance international learning, build global reputations, and increase revenue to advance their missions.
Finally, I cautiously explain that perceived international differences in quality also may be a factor, though its importance appears to be diminishing. Many students choose to study outside of their home country because they are seeking what they believe is a higher quality education. Larger perceived international differences in quality among providers might be associated with higher proportions of internationally mobile students in some fields. According to UNESCO in 2007 the top two sending countries were China and India, where business education is relatively new, and the top two host countries were the United States and United Kingdom, where business education is more mature. However, there is emerging evidence that prospective students, especially for graduate management education, are finding what they want at home.