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World Warms To Asian MBA Market

International students are flooding Asia's best business schools in search of careers, as companies face a dearth of management expertise.

Thu Aug 14 2014

For Gloria Wang, business is booming. The international affairs officer at the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance has seen applications from international students double in the past year. Foreign candidates have flocked to the business school’s MBA and master programs, seeking to beef-up their knowledge, and do battle with China’s financial sector.

“Recruiters value their profound knowledge about the Asian market… The majority of our Finance MBA graduates have found jobs in financial institutions in China after they graduate,” she says. “We also attract domestic applicants, and the competition is fierce.”

However, this has not always been the case. For years, China served as an exporter of management talent to rivals in the United States and Western Europe.

“Still, most like to apply for European or North American programs,” says Sarah Feng, senior manager of the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB) MBA program. “But we see strong demand from overseas Chinese [students] who like to come back to China to start new career.”

The might of the Chinese economy means that it is not just international job seekers knocking on the door of China’s business schools, but domestic and foreign companies looking to expand.

At the same time Asian employers face a massive dearth of management expertise, and cannot find enough talented new hires to take their products and services to new markets.

Yet Asian business schools have in the past not been on the radar of many of these businesses, and domestic candidates.

Only 10% of participants in the National University of Singapore Business School full-time MBA are Singaporeans, says Chua Nan Sze Marie Antonie, director of graduate studies. “On average, about 50% of those in the part-time program are Singaporeans,” she adds.

Only two Singaporean business schools are featured in the FT’s global MBA ranking: NUS and Nanyang Business School. Six Chinese schools are represented; one from South Korea.

But there are signs that the world has been warming to Asian schools. Hong Kong UST Business School now runs four MBA modules and two separate executive MBA programs. About 83% of their MBA students are internationals, a 7% increase on 2013. The University of Hong Kong boasts a 27% increase in international MBA students, bringing the total this year to 66%.

Peking University’s Guanghua School this year launched a new EMBA with the Kellogg School of Management, while London Business School is partnering with Fudan University to offer a master of management program in Shanghai. Other big-name schools have set-up campuses across China.

This shift is reflected in the uptick in GMAT test taking among Chinese citizens. There has been an average annual growth rate of 22% over the past five years, according to Graduate Management Admission Council data.

This surge is being driven by younger candidates who want to advance their careers, who make up 79% of all GMAT tests taken by Chinese citizens.

Nonetheless the rate of growth has not been enough to satisfy demand, and some worry that China in particular is not doing enough to solve its talent crisis. According to the latest China Business Report, published by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, more than a third of companies said that HR constraints seriously hindered their business.

“It’s a case where there’s very fast growth in the region, and despite the fact that a lot of great talent is coming in, it’s just not able to keep pace with all the opportunities that companies have in Asia,” says Stephen Shih, Asia Pacific MBA recruiter at Bain & Company, the consultancy.

One obstacle to international recruitment in Asia is language – but many business schools offer language speaking classes.

“For most international students, learning Chinese is no longer just a hobby – knowing the language improves the odds of getting a good job,” says Liansheng Wu, MBA program director at the Guanghua School of Management.

Chua says: “Some of our MBAs take up a Chinese Language module at NUS for credit as a cross-faculty module.” Although in Singapore this can be difficult; Singaporeans speak Malay, Mandarin and Tamil.

Just south of Malaysia's Johor Bahru, NUS Business School graduates candidates from 23 different nationalities. The full-time MBA cohort is dominated by international students, who make up 89% of the group.

“While our full-time MBA cohort is still predominantly made up of international students, our part-time cohort surprised us this year,” says Chua.

“This is the first time that our expatriate community in the cohort exceeded that of Singaporeans, to stand at 57%.”

Its MBA program, which costs about $46,000, has averaged a global MBA ranking of 30th place over the past three years.

“There has been increasing competition for high calibre MBA candidates internationally and within Singapore,” Chua says.

She is quick to point out that local professionals also recognise the importance of quality business education.

“MBAs from Asian business schools are increasingly gaining favour with recruiters – top Asian schools and universities have established a good reputation,” adds Chua.

“MBAs may pick up knowledge in the Asian region, which may be of value to companies seeking leaders to lead in, and from, Asia – where it is all happening in this Asian Century.”

Close to 60% have found jobs in Singapore, and approximately 40% in other parts of Asia and beyond, buoyed by an economy that has remained relatively strong.

The picture is much the same in Shanghai, according to Gloria from SAIF. The school claimed last year that 100% of its 2013 MBAs had gotten job offers by August.

About 90% of the 225 students on SAIF’s Finance MBA, which costs about $38,000, now work in the financial sector.

“It’s highly recognizable by the recruiters, as they believe the students have gained important insights into the local market,” says Gloria.

“The strong economy in China, Shanghai in particular, has a positive effect on the employment rate. Nearly all our international students have anticipated to work in Shanghai or Greater China, which is also what motivated them to study here,” she added.

It is a sentiment echoed by Shanghai-based China Europe International Business School – 95% of its MBA class have job offers this year, according to Roy Chason, assistant director of marketing. CEIBS has seen a 22% increase in international students compared with last year, he added.

Many believe that having an MBA from an Asian business school offers something different to recruiters. But the Guanghua School of Management takes issue with assumption that the degree guarantees jobs.

Recruiters will require much more than the three magic letters.

“To them, China’s business schools not only provide business administration knowledge [but] more importantly, they are a channel for experiencing China’s national conditions, culture and concepts, and the Chinese way of thinking,” says Liansheng.

Nonetheless, the MBA market is beginning to stir. Some believe it is only a matter of time before Asia becomes the choice destination for business schools – and careers.

"Few businesses are not impacted by Asia, and most global companies have an increasing portion of their business in the region – making knowledge of China and Asia an invaluable asset and point of differentiation for candidates," Roy added.