Domestic MBA Enrolments Surged During COVID After International Students Locked Out

Australian students flocked to the MBA in 2021 to help shore up their careers in the face of economic uncertainty

The number of local students enrolling in Master of Business (MBA) programs surged in the second year of the pandemic (2021) as young executives found themselves with extra time on their hands or the need to bolster their CV in the face of economic uncertainty.

Data compiled and provided by the Commonwealth Department of Education showed there was 14,542 domestic MBA enrolments in 2021, up 4.5% on 2020, with more than 50 different providers offering the degree.

Predictably, total MBA enrolments fell nearly 12% in 2021, with a solid uplift in local student numbers unable to make up for a massive decline in international students after the closure of borders. Overseas students numbers slumped 23.1% to 15,190.

The data supports anecdotal evidence that business schools were the beneficiaries of a significant spike in interest in the MBA as part of defensive career play by many people in the face of economic insecurity or simply having more time on their hands after being furloughed, laid off or working from home.

The data reveals the number of external (online) international students more than doubled to 4,592 in 2021 as universities and other MBA providers switched locked-out students to online study.

Student numbers at Australia's biggest online MBA provider, the Holmes Institute, slumped by more than half to 2,258 enrolments while Victorian Institute of Technology (up 102%), Australian Institute of Management (up 32%), Victoria University (up 14%) and QUT (12%) were among the big winners.

Among the big winners in attracting domestic students during the height of the pandemic were the Australian Institute of Business (1,717 enrolments up 3.3%), the University of New South Wales (923 enrolments up 12%) and RMIT (576 enrolments up 69%).

Associate Dean (Post-Experience), UNSW Business School and Academic Director of AGSM Associate Professor Michele Roberts said the pandemic presented a number of challenges in recruiting full-time MBA students, but applicants had responded positively to AGSM's offerings.

"Firstly, AGSM's reputation as one of the world's top providers of online MBA programs reassured applicants that if they did have to spend any time in lockdown, they would still be assured of a world-class MBA education," she said.

"And indeed, we did draw on all of the strengths of our online MBAX program to support our full-time cohort during COVID, including world-class MBA course materials, facilitators and Student Experience and support teams who are very experienced in engaging and supporting students online.

Associate Dean (Post-Experience), UNSW Business School and Academic Director of AGSM Associate Professor Michele Roberts
Associate Dean (Post-Experience), UNSW Business School and Academic Director of AGSM Associate Professor Michele Roberts

Dr Roberts said AGSM was seeing a significant increase in applications to the program this year.

"There is a lot of uncertainty about the future, which can feel overwhelming and difficult to make life-changing decisions," she said.

"People are nervous about the rise of AI and potential for technological job destruction, the climate emergency and there is a sense of hopelessness many young people feel about progress towards Net Zero and looming recession around the world.

"All of this may be true, but doing nothing is not going to help. There has never been a better time to step away from business as usual, educate and upskill yourself for this challenging and complex reality, and pivot towards a role where you can 'be the change you want to see in the world' as Gandhi urged us.

AGSM's MBA programs are grounded in the principles of Responsible Management – a curriculum developed in collaboration with The Ethics Centre.

"We are the first business school in the country to offer a fully integrated global Responsible Management curriculum throughout all our courses, which are intentionally designed to enable a new generation of leaders to be responsible, sustainable, ethical leaders throughout their careers," she said.

Ben Ready founded MBA News in 2014 and is the Managing Editor. He is a former business and finance journalist with Australian Associated Press (AAP) and Dow Jones Newswires in London. Ben completed his MBA in 2012 and was awarded the QUT GMAA Entrepreneurship Prize. He is also the founder and Managing Director of RGC Media & Mktng (