Certain institutions have always thrived in a recession: discount stores, bankruptcy courts - and business schools. And with this particular recession being driven from the top, with the self-immolation of the financial services industry, you can expect a boom for MBA programmes in the UK and around the world.
The logic is simple enough. Rather than sitting out the recession either unemployed or watching your career and salary stagnate, you go and get that MBA you've always wanted. By the time you graduate, perhaps the clouds will have cleared and it will be onwards to the sunlit uplands of success.
At Oxford's Said Business School, applications are up 30% this year. 'You naturally see an increase in applications when things go badly in the economy,' says Anna Farrus, Said's MBA admissions manager. 'Normally, people who have been thinking for a while about getting an MBA decide now is the time to do it, when things aren't looking so good.'
All around the world, it seems, potential MBAs are taking the graduate management admission test (GMAT) - the standardised test required by most schools - and organising their references. In 2008, a record number of people, 247,000, took the GMAT.
David Simpson, associate director for admissions at the London Business School, says MBA applications are up for the fifth year in a row. But it is hard to know how much of that is attributable to the economy and how much to additional marketing efforts, and the rise in LBS's reputation. This year, it topped the Financial Times' Global MBA rankings for the first time.
And then, of course, no applicants will say the economy pushed them to apply. Not that a firing necessarily hurts your chances. 'Depending on the industry you worked in, some of the most talented people in organisations are being laid off right now,' says Simpson. 'It's not their fault.' Consequently, the school does not regard being laid off in a bad light.
'What we do want to know is what you're doing about it - what you've been doing in the meantime. If you were laid off six months ago, have you been proactive about finding work, were you doing something constructive like learning a language, or perhaps just taking a break from work to go on a great trip?'
Simpson says that LBS has received plenty of applications from people with finance backgrounds, but not an 'onslaught of out-of-work bankers'.
He attributes this to the fact that getting an MBA - however enticing during a recession - remains a major undertaking. There is the time-consuming act of putting together an application and gathering references, then scraping together funding even before you begin a one-or two-year course.
Professor Andy Stark, director of the full-time MBA at Manchester Business School, says applications are slightly up on last year, but not as much as they might be. He attributes this to two factors. First is the international bias of his school: just 35% of students at Manchester come from within the UK or the EC, the rest mostly from the Americas and Asia. Application rates are affected by how the economy is hurting to different degrees in different regions. The second factor discouraging applications is the credit crunch, limiting access to graduate loans. 'This is definitely dampening down the increase in demand for the MBA,' he says.
All schools are conscious of the need to make the financial commitment as simple as possible for students. The hunt is on for fresh scholarship funds, while loan schemes through bank partnerships - such as London Business School's with HSBC - are being promoted as part of a portfolio approach to funding an MBA. At the same time, many business schools are struggling to cope with falling endowments, fewer alumni donations and the drying up of executive education programmes, as companies slash discretionary spending. Such executive education programmes, which can charge tens of thousands of pounds for just a few days of training for groups of mid-career executives, have long been a lucrative source of income for business schools - certainly far more lucrative than the MBA courses.
Dave Wilson, president and CEO of GMAC, the organisation that runs the GMAT tests, says that the faltering economy explains only some of the application surge. 'There are a whole lot of factors that come into play, and the economy is certainly part of it, but not the only part. The whole question of the value proposition of the MBA remains strong.'
In an era in which MBA graduates have overseen some of the biggest financial disasters on Wall Street, in the City of London and beyond, that may not sound intuitively right. But the application numbers seem to bear him out. People are still reaching for the MBA to turbo-charge their careers.
One area expected to grow strongly is the part-time MBA. People in relatively secure jobs who may have left to get an MBA in more encouraging economic times are now staying put and looking for ways to get their education while still collecting a monthly pay cheque. Some of the biggest surges in applications to American business schools have been seen in middle-tier schools with more flexible MBA programmes. People are seeking to raise their economic value, but not by jeopardising their present job.
'Unlike previous economic downturns, we really don't know what's going to happen next,' says Farrus at the Said School. 'This isn't like any crisis we've seen before. So it's almost reassuring to see that our applicant numbers are going up.'
Some schools even see the volatility in the jobs market as an opportunity to seek out recruits actively. London's City University Cass Business School has been running a poster campaign on the Underground with slogans such as 'Don't just survive, thrive' and 'In crunch times, do yourself credit' to entice potential students. And business magazines are carrying just as many advertisements for MBA programmes around the world as they ever did.
For those currently passing through an MBA course, however, the value of what they are obtaining may not seem immediately apparent. Finance jobs, which used to soak up large numbers of MBAs, are just not there any more. Both students and careers services offices are under pressure to do more than ever to network and uncover what jobs there are out there. Firms that used to dangle signing bonuses and full-time offers to students while they were still at school are holding off. The internship has become even more important, as many major firms refuse to hire full-time employees from beyond their intern pool.
GMAC reports that 25% of companies have no intention of hiring MBAs in 2009, up from 17% in 2008. Salaries for MBAs are expected to be stagnant, leading to a possible repeat of the early 2000s, when MBA salaries fell and levelled off for several years.
'What we tell students,' says Stark at Manchester, 'is that it is at times like these that firms restructure their workforces, which creates space for new talent.' As the expensive deadwood is elbowed aside, it creates room for cheaper, hungrier MBAs. There is hope.