Economic Might Buoys Asia Pacific MBA Programs

A combination of lower costs, a rising number of high-quality business schools and strong economies are driving demand in the region

The Asia Pacific region is a rising force in business education, as evidenced by the growing demand for MBA programs among Asian students while the supply of high-quality schools in the region is expanding. 

China and Singapore, in particular, have become ever-larger exporters of students who want to gain experience in Europe and North America, as well as Australia. But these two nations are also offering good places to students closer to home, who are enrolling in larger numbers than ever before.  

“We are definitely seeing a reversal of the trend. There are more Asians choosing to do their MBAs in Asia, albeit not in their home countries,” says Nicole Tee, director of MBA programs at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

Economic dynamism attracts students

She says the MBA market is a direct reflection of the economy. “Asia is the fastest-growing economic region in the world. Asian consumers are expected to account for half of the global consumption in the next decade. There has also been a shift toward more region-centric supply chains. Hence, it is not surprising that MBA applicants are riding on this economic growth potential.”

On top of that, she adds the number and quality of business schools in the region is also growing. “With the rise of Ivy-league-type business schools in Asia, applicants are spoilt for choice in the number of great MBA programs,” says Tee, while adding that such programs are good value for money. “The tuition fees in Asian MBAs have not caught up with those of their US and European counterparts.”

Shameen Prashantham, MBA director at Shanghai’s China Europe International Business School, agrees that cost is a key factor to consider because an MBA is, for many, a substantial investment. “As the affluency rates have increased, so has the demand for such a program,” he says, hinting at the rising middle classes across the diverse continent.

“The rise of excellent business schools in Asia has been well documented, and has certainly helped with this trend,” Prashantham adds, while noting that the might of the region’s economy is also a strong pull factor for students. “If the purpose of an MBA is to learn business and connect to business, you need to go to where the action is, so right now Asia occupies a very favourable place.”

Education geared to local needs

An appetite for education geared to local needs has also helped to buoy demand for MBAs in Asia, with schools such as Ceibs tailoring the content to themes that get less coverage among western institutions. “Everything we do on campus, and off campus, is designed to bring our students deeper into China and more connected globally. Local needs are met for our students, partners and alumni by offering courses, resources and experiences that help them to excel here,” says Prashantham.

For example, Ceibs offers a China module in the nearby city of Nanjing to explore how Chinese companies are expanding overseas and the type of talents they need to further their global ambitions. Such content appeals to international candidates who are keen to come and learn about doing business in Asia, on top of the strong demand from local students.

“Asian educational institutions in their own right have to start attracting international students,” says Ramabhadran Thirumalai, deputy dean of academic programs at the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad.

“Predominantly, business schools around the world focus on curriculum and learnings that is based on Western capitalism. Problems and solutions are different in Asia. The business schools in Asia are in a unique position to offer something that is very different from the business schools in the West. It is possible to provide more well-rounded education to MBA students in Asia.”

Strong local demand

John Shields, academic director of international programs at University of Sydney Business School, agrees. “Students from around the world want to know more about doing business in Asia because it is where the geopolitical and economic power of the 21st century is going to lie. Asia is now an epicentre of innovation, as well as business activity and economic growth and development. So, you’re in the middle of the action.”

He argues that Australia has the best of both worlds when it comes to business education. “We have a Western, liberal-democratic, critical thinking heritage and yet we’re also very close to Asia, and that’s a unique combination. Being able to observe and learn about Asia up-close but not fully immersed is, arguably, a strategic advantage for Australian higher education.”

With that said, ISB’s Thirumalai points out that going to the west is still considered aspirational and attractive because of the educational as well as career opportunities it offers. “While there has been a change in the latter over the last couple of decades, barring a few educational institutions in Asia, not many can compare or compete on the quality of education,” he admits.

Ian Fenwick, director of the Sasin School of Management in Bangkok, Thailand says: “Thailand and Bangkok are not the destinations that first come to mind for education.

Although we attract a minority of degree program entrants from outside the region, most of the class will be reconnecting southeast Asians.”

More than 50 percent of the school’s degree candidates have academic qualifications from outside this region. “For students, unlike iPhones, the export destination is often not permanent: they come back,” says Fenwick. “This is particularly [true] of students from Southeast Asia. They see the enormous life-advantages of immersion in an English-speaking environment and exposure to other cultures but are intensely aware of the advantages of businesses located in the faster growing Southeast Asia economies. The net result is that most student exports from this region are temporary.”

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