Why China is a Rising Force in Business Education

Fast economic growth and gender-balanced cohorts draw students from all over the world

China is not just a growing economic powerhouse; it is a rising force in business education as well. Its expanding economy, population and disposable incomes have driven a high demand for business master’s degrees in China. A wealth of multinational as well as home-grown firms like Alibaba also need MBA talent to help fuel their growth in China and abroad. 

Chinese business schools like China Europe International Business School (Ceibs), the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Fudan University’s business school are relatively youthful compared with some of their peers in the US and Europe. But they are drawing applications from these regions as they grapple with the rise of populism, political instability and hostile immigration policy. 

There have been sharp declines in applications to the US, the ancestral home of the MBA, for the past few years while global demand has been on a downward spiral, falling 3.1 percent year-on-year in 2019, according to exam administrator GMAC. 

Asian institutions have bucked the trend with applications to MBA courses there outstripping everywhere else for the second year on the bounce, GMAC data show. This growth is supported by strong domestic demand, with nearly half of Asian schools reporting growth from local applicants this year. 

Chinese students have long filled overseas campuses, accounting for high proportions of the international students at many business schools in the US, UK and Australia, but the globetrotting generation are flipping the script by studying closer to home: at Chinese institutions whose teaching quality and global standing is on an upswing. 

The trend may have been compounded by the US-China trade war and Chinese nationalism, with Beijing having warned its peoples to be cautious when studying in the US. 

“As China’s miracle economy has developed, this has in turn attracted the fundamental resources required by leading business schools to thrive here - top companies, top professors and top students,” says Juan Antonio Fernandez, director of the Ceibs MBA. 

But he warns that schools in China — many of which are still relatively new — cannot be complacent: “In order to maintain this trajectory, we must continue to focus efforts on innovating and not simply following the traditional business school model,” says Fernandez. 

For example, Ceibs has competed with western schools by developing more content and case studies on Chinese companies and field trips to unique geographies such as the vibrant tech scene in Shenzhen. This appeals to Chinese undergraduate students overseas who come back home for fear of missing out on China’s economic development, as well as foreign executives who increasingly are doing business in China, says Fernandez. 

MBA programs in China: diversity issues

Beyond Ceibs, a cadre of institutions have achieved an international rank and accreditation from a top agency like AACSB or EQUIS, including the University of Hong Kong, Shanghai’s Antai College of Economics and Management, and CUHK Business School. 

However, their potential over-reliance on domestic students is a risk, in that people enroll at business school expecting to learn from a diverse group of peers. A diversity of perspectives in the classroom enriches the learning through groupwork and debate. 

Yet Andrew Yuen, associate director of MBA programs at the CUHK school, says more foreign MBA students are attracted by the strong growth of the Chinese market. “The layer of middle management in China has been expanding very fast. To move upward, it is common or even a pre-requisite to have a postgraduate degree. It creates a huge demand for MBA education.” 

He adds that studying in China allows students to build up their network: “Relationships, or guanxi, are one of the key success factors for those who want to develop their career in China.” 

Notably, Chinese schools often perform better than their US counterparts on gender diversity. In China, 73 percent of business schools polled by GMAC reported higher demand from women this year, and they accounted for 51 percent of all applications to the country. This latter sum compares with 39 percent in the US. 

At Fudan University, 65 percent of MBA students are women, the highest of any school globally that was listed in the most recent Global MBA Ranking from the Financial Times. The Antai school is also at gender parity in its MBA cohort, while the University of Hong Kong is close with 46 percent women. 

Lawrence Linker, founder and CEO of Singapore based admissions agency MBA Link, says this can be explained by China’s one-child policy that ended in 2015 and has created “a more gender egalitarian society”. 

He adds: “Single daughters are raised with the expectation that they may need to be self-sufficient. They also have role models in society. Alibaba's founding team, for example, was famously comprised of a large number of women.” 

Tough competition to get into an MBA in China

Despite these many pros, relatively few Chinese schools are ranked by leading publications like The Economist, which lists only two in its ranking of the 100 best MBAs in the world. Linker says looking at rankings, which have significant influence over applicants, could motive prospective students to study in the US or Europe instead of China. 

But he adds that Asian students are “less likely to consider western-centric media as a guide” to their future. “Many Chinese youth are very bullish on China,” he says. 

But this is not necessarily good news for prospective students, who may face tougher competition for a place on an MBA course in China. The average acceptance rate at Asian schools was 48 percent this year, GMAC said, whereas the figure is 71 percent in the US. 

“There's no doubt that competition at top Chinese business schools has increased and will continue to do so,” says Linker.

What’s his advice for securing a place? 

“Chinese business schools are more oriented towards an applicant's data points than their western counterparts,” as test scores may be more meritocratic, he says. This means candidates need a “sky high GMAT, GPA” and should focus less on their personal narrative, Linker says. 

“There is wiggle room, but nothing like what we see from schools in the west.” 

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