Role reversal as Asian schools head west

As a Chinese school opens its first London office, Peter Brown reveals the future of Eastern MBAs
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The Independent Online

"We need to forget about Facebook and Twitter," says Professor Sun Baohong to her audience. "Facebook is a tiny dot on the chart. China's customers are different." In other words: get real, Westerners.

Sun is associate dean for global programmes at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, and her message was delivered recently in a fashionable London salon to the local great and good, including Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, and Lord Green, minister for trade and investment. It was an auspicious occasion for one reason: it marked the opening for the first time of an Asian business school office in London. Until now, the trade in management education has been one-way. Most leading Western schools have a base in Asia, and thousands of MBA students have visited China.

But China's own schools have adapted the Western model and improved it dramatically, often writing their own case studies. Cheung Kong has three campuses – in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou – and opened an office in New York a year ago. Its London plan is to concentrate first on executive education, running tours to introduce European business leaders to its alumni, most of whom, Sun says, are at the top of successful state-owned businesses. Then, in a year or two, it will launch a part-time global executive MBA with a European partner.

"Chinese companies are getting much better," Sun says. "Of the top 10 social-media companies in China, none are US-based. They copied the US idea, but then they innovated. They understand their customers. Western companies need to adapt to that."

Foreign social-media companies, of course, are blocked, if not banned, in China. But still – look at that immense market. "Our students will take classes not only in China, but also Japan and South Korea," Sun says. "All our faculty established themselves in Europe and the US, but have a deep knowledge of China. You could put a Harvard professor in China for five years but he could never get that much insight."

These are fighting words. The Cheung Kong school (known as CKGSB) means business – and although it is a non-profit organisation, it has the backing of its founder, the entrepreneur Li Ka-shing. He is the world's tenth richest man, according to Forbes.

"We have a top-down approach," Sun says. "We try to educate the very top management, who will then influence other people." She imagines a class of 30 to 50 for the global executive MBA, once a partner school has been found.

CKGSB isn't attached to a university or directly answerable to the Chinese Ministry of Education. The only other school similarly free of control is the top-rated China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai.

So will CEIBS follow Cheung Kong to London? It's not saying, pointing instead to the international nature of its global executive MBA classes: some 40 per cent come from 26 different countries outside China, but are now business leaders living and working in China.

Partnership is how most business schools operate in China. The Tsinghua School of Economics and Management in Beijing has a deal with Insead, near Paris. London Business School offers a joint executive MBA with Hong Kong University and Colombia Business School, and takes CEIBS students. Others, protective of their brands, avoid partnerships. The Chicago Booth Graduate School of Business's newly opened centre in Beijing will not award degrees.

Oxford University's Saïd Business School also has no plans to link its executive MBA with others. "We have a fantastically valuable brand. Anything we did elsewhere would have to be done by us," says Professor Stephan Chambers, the MBA director. Meanwhile, the school sends executive MBA students to China to meet business executives. In the end, choosing where you study boils down to where you want to work. "This isn't a programme for people who want to get themselves employed in China, it's for people who want to understand that economy," says Chambers. "If you were 26 and committed to China, don't come to Oxford. Teach yourself Mandarin and go to CEIBS."

'In china people are very aware of the group'

Maxence Perret-Gentil, 25, from Switzerland, turned the usual MBA pattern on its head. He graduated this month from a one-year MBA from Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, taught in Beijing. He's now job-hunting in China.

"I studied engineering and after graduating I realised that small businesses were looking for opportunities abroad, particularly in China, but they had no clue how to go about it. Then I heard about Cheung Kong. I preferred it to CEIBS, where the full-time course takes at least 18 months. I came over with my American girlfriend a month before the programme started. For a year I lived in an apartment, but now I'm in a hutong, a traditional Chinese neighbourhood, which is fun.

The programme was taught in English, but I was in a class of 60 students, 47 of whom were Chinese. It was difficult at the beginning but they got used to us! In China people are very aware of the group; it goes before your personal friends.

We were given self-produced case studies relating to Chinese and US companies, and the professors always made sure they were compared. I learnt enough Mandarin to get by. It's a 12-month course and cost about $40,000. But you can live a good life in Beijing for $1,000 a month."