As the MBA market increases in Asia, western schools are responding by adopting different strategies

Alisdair Creanor has been fascinated by China ever since, at the age of 10, he saw in Edinburgh an exhibition of the Terracotta Army, now on display at the British Museum. Now aged 30, and nearing the end of an executive MBA at Cass Business School, he hopes to work in China and recently visited the country as part of a week-long symposium organised by Cass.

"I'm now more enthusiastic than ever about moving to China and doing business there," he says. "It's a wonderful country and the people are amazing. But you need a bit of caution, too: it's really important that you understand the culture."

Cass is one of many western business schools looking East with ever-growing interest, as the MBA market develops apace in Asia, particularly in China and India. Western business schools are competing fiercely for Chinese and Indian MBA students, but increasingly both these countries are developing their own business schools, some of which are already rising up the rankings. Recognising this, the London-based Association of MBAs (Amba) is holding its first Chinese accreditation conference in Hong Kong next month.

Durham Business School has forged an alliance with a leading Chinese school, Fudan, and Rob Dixon, deputy dean at Durham, sits on the AMBA panel that reviews business schools in China. "The standard of the best schools in China is good," he says. "Two courses already have AMBA accreditation and there are others in the pipeline."

Professor Ian Gow, pro-vice chancellor of Bristol Business School at the University of the West of England, who was previously responsible for setting up Nottingham University in China, believes that China is emerging as an educational hub which will compete with Europe and the United States.

"You can't afford to ignore China," he says. "There is a fear on the part of some European and US schools – which I think is justified in the medium term – that the market in Chinese students coming from overseas will dry up and that you have to be on the ground in China."

A knowledge of Chinese business culture, he believes, is an "absolute imperative" for those in international business. But he also advises caution: "So-called MBA fever is over in China, and the situation is a lot more volatile now... European schools will need to recalibrate what they are doing in China and become very strategic, for instance, moving into niche areas or developing training."

So how are European schools responding to a changing market in the East? Many are finding ways of building knowledge about Chinese business into their MBA programmes. Some, like Cass, take their MBA students there. Ashridge, too, has organised an international study week in China for the past three years, establishing links with Chinese companies and doing some recruiting of Chinese students at the same time.

Some business schools are pursuing alliances with Eastern schools, or even establishing their own campuses. Manchester Business School Worldwide, for instance, already has centres in Singapore and Hong Kong, the latter recruiting many students from south China. It recently set up another in Dubai.

"It's very helpful to have a presence in some of the most active business environments in the world, to interact with students and to give our faculty experience of teaching there," says Nigel Bannister, chief executive office at Manchester Business School Worldwide.

Other schools are interested in building research links with India and China. Cambridge University, for example, has no desire for overseas campuses but the Judge Business School is exploring exchange programmes with Indian MBA students.

Professor Arnoud De Meyer, director at the Judge, welcomes the rise of new world-class business schools outside North America "to meet the challenges of global business, and to drive new management solutions in response to increased internationalisation, innovation and economic growth".

Top schools in China and India, however, could pose problems in terms of shortage of faculty, he believes, because many Asians currently recruited to the West will get attractive offers to return to their own countries.

Professor De Meyer is not alone in his conviction that many of the best Asian students will continue to come to Europe to study "because they want an international education". In India, places at the best business schools are hugely sought-after, with almost one million applying for 800 places at Indian Institute of Management centres. Many Indians who can afford to still opt for an MBA in Europe. At Ashridge Business School [see box], for example, 19 per cent of the MBA class are from India.

Sweden's leading university, Lulea, is launching a new MBA programme in London, with UK partner Mayur, specially tailored for Indian students, with mandatory projects in India and Sweden, and a focus on individual well-being and sustainable development.

"It's an international MBA with international faculty, but oriented towards humanistic management," says Gopi Warrier at Mayur, the Indian university in London. "With the wide disparity of wealth in India, we need a different and more ethical model from the western MBA."

'It was an opportunity to see what my strengths were'

Rajesh Sarada, 40, completed an MBA at Ashridge Business School in December 2006 before returning to India, where he works for an engineering company in corporate strategy.

"I had been doing a marketing job, and I wanted an MBA to give me the managerial skills to go up the ladder. There are quite a few business schools in India offering good international-standard MBAs, but I wanted a one-year not a two-year course. I also wanted to be studying with an older, more experienced age group and the age group in Indian schools is around 23 to 24. Ashridge offered both these things and the school is not too big.

The MBA was not very easy to finance. But I got a bursary from Ashridge and a low-interest education loan in India, which helped. My family stayed in India, partly to keep the expenses under control.

The course was excellent. It was an opportunity to see what my strengths and weaknesses were and to reflect on myself. Ashridge really focuses on the soft skills – unlike Indian schools. It was also a very diverse group, with more than 15 nationalities, which was useful.

I got to see a lot of England, and I really enjoyed English weather. I also learnt a lot about the English way of doing business, which was very different – more professional than in India, in terms of making appointments and keeping deadlines."