On New Year’s Day, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wrote on X: “From today, the majority of foreign university students cannot bring family members to the UK. In 2024, we’re already delivering for the British people.”

It was a reference to one of his attempts to cut the number of people coming to live in the UK, by changing the visa rules to bar most new international students from bringing family members with them when they come to study at universities or business schools. The decision sent shockwaves through educational institutions, prompting concerns about the loss of income from fees and the academic implications of limiting diversity.

The government’s decision has also focused attention on how business schools around the world say students’ partners make often unseen — yet valuable — contributions to the academic experience, both on and off campus.

For Oluseye Owolabi, a Nigerian MBA alumnus from the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, the ability to bring his wife and child along was a crucial factor in choosing the UK for his studies between 2017 and 2018. He would now be unable to do so, as students can no longer bring dependants unless they are on a postgraduate research programme.

The rule change is aimed at controlling record net migration. “I understand the logic, but it feels like a step too far to dictate to families how they organise themselves,” Owolabi says. “For mature students, with all the stress you have to deal with in the MBA, you don’t want to add fracturing your family into the equation.”

Since graduating, he has found work at Boston Consulting Group in London, contributing to the UK economy.

Owolabi’s disappointment at the visa change echoes a broader fear within business schools that these new restrictions will harm international recruitment. The ability to bring dependants has long been a significant attraction for overseas students keen to study on campus full time. UK business schools heavily rely on international students, who account for upwards of 90 per cent of those enrolled on most top-ranked MBAs.

“The changes will have an impact — for some, especially those with young children, the ability to bring dependants is a differentiating factor in terms of which country to study in,” says Conrad Chua, executive director for the MBA at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School. Roughly a fifth of all MBA students there have dependants in the UK.

The UK’s stance differs from many other global education hubs, such as the US, Canada, France and Australia, where partners or spouses are generally able to accompany international students on their visas. However, specific requirements and restrictions can vary significantly between countries. The US, for example, implements certain financial conditions, and dependants may not be permitted to work.

Beyond immigration concerns, the role and perception of partners in the lives of MBA students around the world are changing. Partners are no longer confined to the stereotype of “trailing spouses” but are increasingly recognised as active contributors, enriching the educational experience for MBA students and the broader academic community.

“Partners add a lot of value to the community,” says Sara Vanos, executive director of marketing and admissions for MBA programmes at HEC Paris. They make contributions to networking events, community engagement and fostering cultural diversity, she says. Partners also provide crucial emotional support, contributing significantly to the mental wellbeing and success of MBA students.

“If you have to leave your partner behind, that will be extremely difficult as the MBA is really busy with long hours, lots of extracurricular activities,” Vanos says.

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Pursuing an MBA can have a significant impact on partners, too. Eva Laporte, a community officer at Insead in Fontainebleau, near Paris, says the decision to pursue an MBA is usually made jointly with a significant other. The impact on the partner’s career is a big consideration, as they may pause work for the duration of the MBA.

Insead supports partners during its 10-month programme, offering resources such as online courses for professional development. “The one studying will face academic pressures so, for partners, it can be a little bit lonely,” admits Katja Boytler, global director of student life at Insead, who encourages them to join the campus community.

Lauren La Rosa’s experience moving to Ann Arbor, in Michigan, for her partner Alexander Dawson’s MBA at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business underlines the importance of choosing a school that provides a supportive environment for partners.

“I had never been to the Midwest before, so it was scary for me not knowing anybody other than my partner,” she says. “I took it upon myself to make those connections. I did not want to be just someone’s girlfriend.”

Actively participating in the academic community, La Rosa, who is American, co-presides over the Partners Club, dedicated to supporting the needs of partners and families of students. She also found work at Michigan Ross, becoming the marketing and events co-ordinator for the MBA admissions team in 2023. “You get out what you put into the experience,” she tells other partners.

International couples often face difficulties when adapting to a new country, such as language and cultural differences. However, the experience also presents opportunities for personal growth and strengthening relationships, as exemplified by Muhammad Afzal Asad’s relocation from Pakistan to France with his wife and two children for an MBA at HEC Paris.

A family photo that includes husband and wife and their two children
Muhammad Afzal Asad from Pakistan with his wife and children in Paris, where he studied for an MBA at HEC

“This actually brought me and my wife closer together,” says Asad, who studied between 2021 and 2023. The ability to bring family on a long-stay visa was a critical factor in choosing France for his MBA, he says. “Otherwise, I might have studied in another country.”

Recognising the challenges faced by international MBA students and their partners, business schools worldwide have implemented initiatives to ease the transition. Iese Business School in Barcelona, for instance, has orientation programmes and guidance on the visa application process designed to help partners integrate smoothly into Spain.

“A holistic view of the MBA students is critical,” says Angeles Losa, the executive director of Iese’s MBA programme. “We want them to do well academically and find a good job, but you cannot just forget about family.” 

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