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Asia schools itself in the art of business

Regional MBA programs shine as demand for education soars

SINGAPORE/HONG KONG -- There are plenty of metrics to chart Asia's economic rise over the last two decades, ranging from economic growth rates and industrial output to tourist numbers and car sales. Less noticed, but just as striking, is the emergence of around a dozen first-rate Asian business schools.

According to the Financial Times* global ranking of Master of Business Administration courses -- an annual league table based on jobs found and money earned by graduates -- 11 Asian business schools feature in the top 50 this year (including INSEAD, founded in France in 1957, but now French-Asian, with a campus in Singapore since 2000).

"We can certainly link this with overall economic growth in knowledge-economies such as Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea, which can regularly be found in the top 20s of global innovation indices," said Mansoor Iqbal, senior MBA editor at Quacquarelli Symonds, an education consultancy.

The highest-ranked Asian schools on the FT list are spread across the continent. Three Indian schools and three Singaporean schools (including first-place INSEAD) ranked in the top 50, while one South Korean school came in 54th. But nowhere is the phenomenon more apparent than in the region's largest economy, China -- home to most of the highest-ranked indigenous schools in Asia, with five on the list.

In 1994, as Shanghai's Pudong district was being transformed from rice paddies into the soaring, futuristic skyline of China's Wall Street, the Chinese government and the European Union formed a joint venture there to launch the China Europe International Business School. Today, the campus designed by I.M. Pei, a well-known Chinese-American architect, is the world's 11th-best business school, according to the FT -- ahead of such lauded U.S. institutions as Northwestern University's Kellogg and Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan schools of management.

A breakout discussion at CEIBS (Photo courtesy of CEIBS)

In 15th place, tied with America's Yale School of Management, is the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Business School, founded in 1991.

Three other Chinese business schools made the FT's global top 50: Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Antai College of Economics and Management (34th), Chinese University of Hong Kong Business School (36th) and the University of Hong Kong School of Business (39th).

Missing from the list, but world class by any standard, is Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, founded in 2002 with funding from Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing's foundation. The school says it has never sought to be ranked, in part because many of its students are entrepreneurs who are not motivated by higher postgraduate salaries.

Instead, the lavishly funded school claims world-class status because of a faculty studded with former U.S. business school professors and celebrity alumni, including Alibaba Group Holding's Jack Ma Yun and Tencent Holdingsco-founder Chen Yidan.

The school says its graduates oversee companies with combined annual revenues of $1 trillion, equal to more than 9% of China's gross domestic product of just over $11 trillion in 2016, according to the International Monetary Fund.

"I think business schools in the U.S. peaked before the 2008 global financial crisis," said Cheung Kong Associate Dean Li Haitao, who earned his doctorate at Yale and taught finance at the University of Michigan and Cornell University business schools before returning to China in 2013. "Here, business education is just beginning. I think some of our students will be the next Jack Ma of China."

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology overlooks the South China Sea. (Photo courtesy of HKUST)

"Keen competition"

Other Asian business educators believe that Western business schools cannot be so easily dismissed. HKUST Business School's dean, Tam Kar Yan, said of his school's ranking: "There's not much room to go up, but a lot of room to go down." He added: "Although we rank pretty high, we can still improve. I do sense keen competition."

Tam and other Asian deans agree that the best Asian schools have transformed themselves from clones of their Western counterparts to offer uniquely designed programs suited to local conditions.

Tam said HKUST has devised a hybrid "East-meets-West" curriculum that focuses heavily on case studies of Chinese and Hong Kong companies. These include telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies, Alibaba rival, hot technology startup DJI Technology, the world's largest maker of drones -- founded by HKUST alumnus Frank Wang -- and more traditional family-run businesses such as Lee Kum Kee, a maker of Asian sauces.

China's other leading schools are taking a similar approach.

In its first decade, the programs taught by CEIBS were no different from those offered at Harvard and INSEAD, according to the school's dean, Ding Yuan. But gradually the school began to research and incorporate China-specific managerial issues -- particularly how Chinese corporations emerged as global competitors and how foreign companies expanded in China. Today, its case development center has hundreds of such studies.

The CEIBS campus in Shanghai (Photo courtesy of CEIBS)

In the first week of this year's full-time MBA program at CEIBS, students were introduced not only to the country's multinationals, but also to topics ranging from the accounting practices of Chinese resource companies to the tourism business surrounding the Great Wall. In group discussions, Chinese and international students have debated the merits of Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, a government program aimed at reshaping infrastructure in Asia, and guanxi, or "connections," in Chinese business.

Curriculums at top schools are also starting to reflect China's role as a global leader in fintech, covering regulatory and intellectual property issues related to the burgeoning field. They are also devoting more of their focus to entrepreneurship. CKGSB even teaches courses on humanities, including Confucianism and history, to broaden its students' horizons.

All the leading schools offer degree programs in English and Chinese. Tuition fees are 400,000 yuan ($59,883) for a CEIBS or CKGSB MBA, while HKUST Business School charges 585,000 Hong Kong dollars ($74,786).

While CEIBS's focus is increasingly on domestic companies, the school itself is a global endeavor, having opened a campus in Accra, Ghana, in 2009 to train executives of Chinese companies in Africa, together with Africans who will work with them. In 2015, CEIBS acquired the Lorange Institute of Business Zurich to establish a European campus.

"For the first 10 years, our school was the most successful copy machine," Ding said. "But we have gone from knowledge disseminator to knowledge creator. Our aspiration is to become the next Harvard. But to become the next Harvard, we must do something different from Harvard."

CKGSB also says it wants to expand, into what its dean, Xiang Bing, terms Asia's "Confucian economic bloc," which includes China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore. "There are a lot of disparities, but a lot of similarities as well," Xiang said. "We can learn from each other. I hope our school is a platform."

If high rankings are one testimony to the rise of Chinese business schools, another indicator is their sudden popularity with foreign students. "When I arrived here in 2003, I had only one foreign student in my class," said Ding. "This year, 40% of our students come from outside China."

Among the latest CEIBS intake for its 18-month full-time MBA program is British-born Apricot Wilson, 29, a finance professional and University of Cambridge graduate who believes her best career opportunities are in Asia. "China was squarely in first place as my choice of business school destination countries," Wilson said. "The best schools are located in Beijing and Shanghai, and CEIBS stood out."

Networking opportunity

Foreign students are also attending business schools operated by China's fully state-owned universities, according to Michael Pettis, a former Wall Street banker who is now professor of finance at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management.

Delegates sing the national anthem during the closing ceremony of China's National People's Congress in Beijing on March 16, 2016. © Reuters

Although Guanghua did not make the FT rankings, Pettis said he has been impressed by the quality of the students and the improving curriculum. "When I came to Beijing 15 years ago, there were heavier course loads and more rote learning," said Pettis, who earned his MBA at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business and later taught there. "The changes have been tremendous, and the students are extremely bright and open-minded."

But Pettis said the most important reason to study at one of China's top business schools is networking. "A lot of the leadership in China draw very heavily from the top universities. The great advantage is that your classmates will end up running the Chinese government, Chinese businesses or Chinese banks. And in a country in which the legal system is not as clear as in the West, personal connections are much more important."

Postgraduate students and faculty members meet on the ground floor of the National University of Singapore Business School. (Photo by Simon Roughneen)

The rise of Asian business schools in the FT rankings has been impressive. This year, seven Asian schools (including INSEAD) are in the top 30, with 11 in the top 50 and 13 in the top 100. In 2014, five schools were in the top 30 and nine in the top 50, while in 2006 only two were in the top 30 and four in the top 50. In 2004, only one school -- INSEAD, at 4th -- was in the top 50. The second-highest Asian school was CEIBS, at 53rd.

Nilanjan Sen, associate dean of graduate studies at Singapore's Nanyang Business School, which tied for 24th place, said the rise of Asian MBA schools reflects the region's economic dynamism. This has created an upsurge in "high-paying jobs and opportunities."

"Many of the MBA rankings proxy salary and career development, and here Asia has done well -- particularly Hong Kong and Singapore graduates have gone to attain high salaries," said Jochen Wirtz, vice dean of graduate studies at the National University of Singapore Business School, which was ranked 26th.

The highest-ranked Indian schools are the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad/Mohali, tied for 27th with the S.C. Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University in the U.S., closely followed by the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad at 29th. The third Indian school in the top 50 is the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, at 49th, while the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta is ranked 95th.

An MBA student browses a library in Gurgaon, India. © Reuters

Matt Symonds, a Times Higher Education editorial consultant, said these schools are increasingly focused on producing graduates for companies operating in India's bustling economy, rather than for the U.S. and U.K. "People are saying, 'Why would I want to miss out on opportunities in India? This is where the growth is,'" Symonds said.

INSTEAD, the top ranked school on the FT list, is increasingly looking east. Its newly appointed global head of careers services, for example, is based in Singapore, reflecting job growth in the region. According to INSEAD's dean, Ilian Mihov, around 70% of the school's graduates divide their time between the French and Singaporean campuses, meaning the school is "neither Asian nor European, but global."

Perfect copy

This is a very different approach to that taken by several U.S. business schools, which have set up campuses in Asia, in some cases partnering with local schools to get a better foothold in the region, but rely more on their cachet as top American schools than any hybrid identity.

For example, the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School opened its Penn Wharton China Center in 2015 in Beijing, and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business opened an Asia campus in 2000, which has since been moved from Singapore to Hong Kong.

"Our approach to teaching our Executive MBA Program in Asia is pure Chicago -- the program is the same as Chicago, the professors fly to Hong Kong to teach the exact same courses they teach in Chicago, and the degree requirements are identical, meaning students receive the same MBA degree they would receive if they studied in Chicago," said Booth Associate Dean Rich Johnson.

"We draw on the wisdom and theory from the West, but need to think about what works and doesn't work in this region"

Roy Sembel, dean of IPMI International Business School in Jakarta

Johnson said this method does not diminish the local relevance of the MBA. "Our faculty understand the Asian context very well and use cases and examples in teaching their courses. The students themselves also provide much of the domain-specific knowledge and insight into their own businesses, which they bring into discussions in class and in study groups," he said.

The University of Arizona takes a similar approach to its business program at the American University of Phnom Penh. "We offer the same degree [as at the University of Arizona]. The idea is to provide access to the U.S. education system for those who otherwise might not be able to afford it," said Brent White, a University of Arizona law professor and vice provost for international education.

A lecture at the HKUST Business School (Photo courtesy of HKUST)

Western business schools offer prestige and what John Zhang, director of the Penn Wharton China Center, described as "bringing science and analytical rigor to business decision-making." But Asian schools claim to offer a more intimate knowledge of local business cultures.

"We draw on the wisdom and theory from the West, but need to think about what works and doesn't work in this region," said Roy Sembel, dean of IPMI International Business School in Jakarta, which partners with several European schools.

Unique needs

Asia's economic diversity -- from the rapidly growing middle classes in India and China to the wealthy but aging population in Japan and the potential take-off economies in Cambodia and Myanmar -- means there is a need for more localized content in teaching business.

"If you teach supply chain in India, for example, you don't take infrastructure for granted the way you do in the West," said Wirtz. "In terms of corporate strategy, you cannot teach along the lines of the U.S., with a huge internal market, in a region like Southeast Asia, which is a mix of smaller markets and where you cannot make a single strategy."

Vehicles jam the road in Srinagar, India. hhhhhhh © Reuters

This means that while core aspects of business education such as accounting and economics are the same the world over, the added value comes from local market expertise. "We put it in the right context -- a lot of Asian case studies, a lot of company visits, a lot of presentations by the senior company executives," said Nanyang Business School's Sen.

Nevertheless, going to a business school in the West remains appealing for some Asians because it exposes them to a different culture and enables them to make Western business contacts.

Cedric Soh recently returned to Singapore after graduating from Chicago Booth's MBA program. "My primary considerations were an international experience, particularly in the U.S., to build a professional network outside of Singapore, as well as to gain exposure to different schools of economic thought," he said.

"There has never been a time when foreign students, including Asian students, stopped coming to us," said Zhang.

*The FT is a London-headquartered media organization owned by Nikkei Inc., publisher of the Nikkei Asian Review.

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