“The demise of the MBA is exaggerated,” he told us. “It’s not dead, it’s just relocated to Asia.”
This certainly seems to be true—the latest GMAC Application Trends Survey Report shows a 10.5% drop in foreign applications to the USA, while schools in the Asia-Pacific region reported overall growth.
In the case of Hong Kong, it’s easy to see why this might be.
This month saw the opening of the brand-new West Kowloon station, which will function as the terminus of the Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou – Shenzhen – Hong Kong Express Rail Link, connecting the city to mainland China in under 25 minutes.
This is not all. Next month, the ‘gateway to China’ will also be getting a 34-mile highway connecting it to Macau and Zuhai, establishing itself as the world’s longest sea bridge.
The name of the game in all of these advancements is hyper-connectivity: creating a super-connected high-tech area to rival the USA’s Silicon Valley. With tech hubs cities like Guangzhou and Shenzhen in the loop, it makes sense that tech-focused MBAs are shifting their focus to Hong Kong.
For Stephanie Villemagne, associate dean of graduate programs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School, these changes have prompted a shift in the employment landscape across China and Hong Kong—one that CUHK grads are particularly well-placed to go into.
“We [have connections] in traditional industries—finance, accounting, the hardcore consultancies—and this is still something that graduates go into, but we’ve [also] seen a shift towards technology,” Stephanie says.
“Big tech companies and smaller ones, boutique consultancies in tech and fintech—there’s a really big boost for young graduates to start in finance via the startups that are disrupting the big banks.”
Evidently, entrepreneurial instinct in the tech space is an increasingly valuable asset for MBA grads, whether they're looking to go into a small startup or a big corporate. Not only do students in Hong Kong benefit from the new super-fast transport links to China and Shenzhen, but for those at CUHK Business School there is also access to incubators, both in Hong Kong city and Shenzhen itself.
For MBAs from outside of Asia, the school offers the opportunity to learn more about conducting business in China while also having an awareness of what’s going on outside of it.
“What I think is great is that they get this understanding of Chinese culture, but also an understanding of what it is like outside and bringing that into China—which is really what the next stage of China is,” Stephanie says.
“We prepare [students] with soft skills, communication styles—how do you approach a Chinese employer? How do you use the alumni network? It’s really about utilizing this network to your best interest.”
In this age of rapid technological advancement and hyper-connected, high-tech business hubs, it is this instillation of business savvy and soft-skill proficiency that Stephanie believes will keep the MBA relevant well into the 21st century.
“It’s about adaptivity,” she explains. “The MBA to me is a generalist degree—yes, we should still teach the hardcore skills because they’re the baseline, but we should also teach what’s happening in the world today and tomorrow.
“Are we still going to have investment bankers? Will they look like what they look like today? I don’t believe so, because fintech is disrupting the tools investment bankers are using.”
For Stephanie, the way forward for MBA directors is not to focus on the million minute changes in technology and teaching students about these—it’s not what’s changing that MBAs need to learn, but how, and how they can deal with this in a business context.
“What we’re trying to do here on the MBA and why the MBA still has a few good years [left] is to teach graduates to think and adapt to this new environment,” Stephanie explains. “It’s not about learning to code—you can do that on your own time—it’s about how to talk to coders, to bring innovation into your company.”
The challenges of teaching adaptivity to MBA students is dealing with the uncertainty inherent to a tech landscape defined by constant innovation.
Volatility is part and parcel of this kind of change, so teaching students to make decisions under pressure, identify disruptors and incumbents, and get to know oneself as a leader is paramount.
“What CUHK Business School is bringing to graduates is that we’re keeping them in relatively small-sized programs to make sure that they get the necessary hard skills—the basics—but also the soft skills: the ones that will get them to think about the future,” says Stephanie.
“It’s very much [about] integrating into [our] family: you’ll grow with us and we’ll grow with you—we’ll accompany you from the moment you come here to the end of your career.”