New Delhi: As bankers and other finance professionals seek refuge from downsizing and job losses especially involving Wall Street, unlikely Indian suitors are knocking at their doors.

Global appeal: The library of the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. This year the institute expanded its recruitment drive in the US from seven to nine cities and held roadshows in several cities in Europe. Bharatha Sai / Mint

This year, ISB increased its recruitment drive in the US from seven to nine cities, and held a roadshow in several cities in Europe, as well as Singapore and Hong Kong, reaching some 30 countries, many of them for the first time.

Anecdotally, there is some evidence that employees often turn to higher education as a way to ride out bad times in any economic downturn. But with banks and financial institutions hit especially hard this year, India’s business schools are gearing up for an unusually competitive admissions cycle.

ISB’s admissions process began in September, around the same time the major Wall Street and liquidity problems first surfaced. “It is too early to figure out the impact, but these guys have a good option to go to ISB and ride out the recession for a year," says the school’s recruitment director, V.K. Menon. And even schools that don’t specifically recruit foreign students have seen an uptick in the number of their applications.

Usually, around 10-15% of the students in IIM Calcutta one-year postgraduate programme for executives are Indians who were living and working abroad, but this year, around 20% of the applicants IIM-C has fielded are from that group, according to Biju Paul Abraham, who heads the programme.

Around 20% of the applications IIM Bangalore processed this year for its new one-year programme also came from abroad, according to programme chairperson Malay Bhattacharyya.

“We don’t think for the first year we are going to recruit many international students," he says. “But the responses are overwhelming, and quite a few from NRIs (non-resident Indians) living in the US, Canada, Japan, Europe."

Foreign business school students have been drawn to India largely on the allure of being a part of the so-called India growth story. “I see India and China as major engines for growth in the future, so you need exposure to these countries if you want to get to top management," says Daniel Gete, who came from Spain to study at ISB this year.

But next year’s batch of students is also factoring in the economic downturn as well.

Thomas Hyland, an American student who will start at ISB in April, is acting as something of a brand ambassador to raise ISB’s profile in the US. “There is a real herd mentality, and everyone applies to the same five schools and that’s it," Hyland says. “But I would imagine, over the course of next 10-15 years, you’ll start to see a lot more western students looking for experience in Asia and ISB wants to be a part of that trend."

“Bear Stearns is gone, Citigroup is laying off tons of employees, Lehman is largely gone," adds Hyland, listing the financial firms that have collapsed in recent months. “People who might have been on the fence, I would imagine, (may) drop back in to school."

His efforts have had mixed results so far. “I’m not sure I’ve influenced people to pick up and move to India, but they think, ‘Wow, what an interesting idea,’" he says.

The standard two-year MBA programmes do have some foreign students who come to India through exchanges for one-semester at a time. But since most students at IIMs and other top Indian business schools are new graduates who took institute-specific entrance exams to apply, it is the one-year programmes designed for students with more work experience and admission based on GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) scores that are the more attractive route for foreign students. Not all IIMs say they have specific plans to recruit more students from abroad. Around 10% of IIM Ahmedabad’s one-year programme class owns a foreign passport, but they generally come to the school on their own, according to IIM-A spokesperson Ishita Solanki. “We are not under pressure of getting numbers, and we want people genuinely interested in the programme."

The Chennai-based Great Lakes Institute of Management, for example, which was started by a professor from the Kellogg School of Management, will start pitching itself more aggressively to international students as soon as its new residential campus is ready in January, according to the school’s executive director, S. Sriram. He expects to see around 100 international students—mostly from Asia—in its applicant pool this year.

For ISB, the impetus on international recruitment was helped by its ranking by the Financial Times newspaper as one of the top 20 business schools in the world as well as the fact that international companies, without offices in India, started coming to the Hyderabad campus to recruit, says ISB’s recruitment head Menon. “That gave us some visibility. We thought we could go out and explain the value proposition of the school."