Numbers of MBA students from China have dipped recently. Steve McCormack looks at the reasons and possible solutions

The dynamism of the Chinese economy is well known, and there's hardly a single sector of the business landscape here that isn't keeping half an eye on events in the world's most populous country, even though it's on the other side of the globe.

That vigilance is just as true in the MBA market, where Chinese institutions are now offering their own qualifications inside the Great Wall, and forcing business schools in the UK and elsewhere to work a little harder to maintain their attraction to - and hold on to - potential Chinese MBA students.

In 2000 and 2001, there was a surge of recruits from China enrolling on MBA programmes at UK universities. Their growing economy, increasingly looking outward for markets, had a rampant demand for managerial expertise tutored in Western ways. Business schools here opened their doors, accepted the cheques, and welcomed the added cultural and intellectual flavour represented by the new intake.

At Leeds University Business School, for example, 35 out of a total cohort of 135 on the full-time MBA in 2002 were Chinese. A year earlier, London Business School (LBS) had 14 students from China among a total intake of 304.

But, in the past year or two, the figures have gone in the other direction at many schools. Leeds's Chinese intake on the full-time MBA this year is down to 9 per cent. LBS's 5 per cent representation has slipped to just over 1 per cent. And at Cass Business School, part of London's City University, a Chinese element representing more than 10 per cent of the cohort two years ago, has now shrunk to around 5 per cent.

Theories vary over why Chinese students aren't coming over here in such volume. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is becoming more difficult for Chinese students to get visas, and there is hard evidence of an increase in the quantity of MBA programmes in China itself. There are now 26 business schools in China offering approved courses on an executive MBA model.

Some in the business education community in Britain view the drop in numbers as not altogether a bad thing. David Sims, director of MBA programmes at Cass, thinks universities have to guard against their courses being dominated by Chinese students. "If students end up speaking Mandarin to each other, and not getting closely involved in collaborative work with people from other cultures, we are wasting their money by bringing them over to the UK to study," he says.

The appeal of a British MBA, though, is still strong. Chun Shi, 28, got himself transferred from Standard Chartered Bank's Shanghai branch to the London office, so that he could do a part-time MBA at Cass Business School, which he's just started. Although he agrees that business education in China is playing catch-up fast, he thinks an MBA here will still be more valuable for him.

"The curriculum here is higher quality," he says, "and there is a much more international selection of students here. That's good because so much is learnt from exchanges with fellow students." His plan is to return to China within the next five years and work in the financial sector there, which, he says, is still maturing.

Dina Chen, a recent graduate from the full-time MBA course at Saïd Business School in Oxford, confirms the continuing belief in China that an MBA from a Western institution is a valuable commodity, both for the individual student and the Chinese economy. "The Government in China has been determined to bridge the gap of understanding and operation that exists in business between China and the Western world, particularly by offering scholarships to study in Europe."

Chen chose to do an MBA in Oxford, after an academic and research career in molecular biology in China and the USA. "As a relatively new school, Saïd has academics who are very receptive to feedback from students to shape the programme, which is particularly refreshing."

Saïd is among the schools bucking the trend of falling numbers. Of the 180 students starting the full-time course there this month, 21 are Chinese, a proportion of just over 11 per cent, that's stayed largely stable over recent years.

The programme director, Professor Roy Westbrook thinks the continuing worldwide appeal of the Oxford brand, combined with his policy of travelling to China twice a year to interview all applicants, are factors behind Saïd's sustained popularity. He says the Chinese contingent bring something unique to the MBA cohort. "There is a different mindset among people from a country experiencing 10 per cent growth. That it something unknown to most Westerners."

The growth of institutions in China offering MBAs, he says, is not yet affecting recruitment of the highest-calibre students, who will still want, and can pay for, an MBA qualification from the West. "But the next tier down, who are still very able, may well now decide they can study in Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong, rather than come West."

With this in mind, UK institutions are increasing their presence and upping their game in China itself to try to shore up their business. Cranfield School of Management, whose numbers are also holding up, took this year's graduation ceremony to Beijing, effectively extending its shop front into China, and building on existing relations with the business and public sector community there.

Once a month Cass academics fly out to China to give face-to-face lessons to students on distance-learning MBAs, arranged in conjunction with the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics and the Bank of China. And Lancaster University Management School, which has been active in China since 1985, has just expanded its presence, by linking up with Zhejiang University near Shanghai.

So the China-UK connection looks set to remain strong, even if it'll require a little more nurturing from this side of the globe, as the Chinese business education sector becomes increasingly professional and potential students more discerning.