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Students now arriving on the Shanghai campus of Ceibs (China Europe International Business School) may be surprised at the normality. Social distancing measures are in place but lecture halls have been open for face-to-face teaching since May. Recent new arrivals on the full-time MBA programme were treated to an evening cocktail networking event.

Yet there is a difference, which is the balance of nationalities. Domestic students outnumber their counterparts from overseas more than usual.

Partly, that reflects the current restrictions people face in travelling to China. But it is also an indication of how attractive Chinese business schools have become to applicants who would previously have gone overseas to study business — a change that is being amplified by the coronavirus pandemic.

A decade ago, 10 Chinese business schools, seven in Hong Kong, were recognised by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the leading accreditor of business education. This year 39, of which 31 are mainland Chinese, are accredited by the AACSB.

In that time China has become a respected provider of degree programmes that are starting to influence the curriculums of institutions in other countries. 

Fudan University School of Management in Shanghai was one of the first higher education institutions in China authorised to run MBA courses by the Ministry of Education in 1991. Today, more than 3,500 students complete its full-time, part-time and executive MBA degree programmes: the vast majority are Chinese nationals.

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The appeal of Chinese business schools to domestic students was already growing. But it has been magnified by travel restrictions imposed overseas because of coronavirus, says Lu Xiongwen, Fudan’s dean: “Students that might have gone to the US or Europe . . . chose instead to come to Fudan.”

Although Chinese schools can find plenty of students at home to fill their MBA intakes, that does not mean Chinese schools can ignore the global MBA market. Fudan strives to build a strong international brand to ensure that it can attract the best Chinese applicants, says Mr Lu. The school was 33rd in the Financial Times global MBA ranking this year.

Reputation at home is just as important when it comes to attracting Chinese applicants considering only schools in China. Under the rules of the domestic MBA admission test system — the GRK — a score can be used only once for one school application.

Chinese alumni find rewards at home

Even before the pandemic, increasing numbers of Chinese nationals were picking domestic institutions over more highly ranked schools in the US and Europe. Rising pay for senior roles in Chinese companies means MBA applicants no longer need to look overseas for well-paid jobs after graduation. 

The state has also played a part, says Geoff Perry, AACSB executive vice-president and chief officer for Asia-Pacific. “The Chinese government has been pushing to improve the quality of the higher education sector, which means that the sector is attracting those students that might have gone offshore.”

The growth in MBA student numbers is driving investment by the leading Chinese schools, such as Ceibs, Antai College of Economics and Management at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Renmin University of China Business School.

Fudan is preparing to spend Rmb1.7bn on a 1m sq ft campus, four times the school’s current area, to add more teaching space and digital communications tools, as well as Rmb100m on online teaching technology, spurred by the need this year to turn face-to-face lectures into online classes.

“Whoever grabs this opportunity to reach students digitally will lead in the future of business education,” Mr Lu says. “Online teaching will allow us to reach students in other countries without having to build campuses outside China.”

Ceibs ranked fifth in the 2020 Financial Times global MBA ranking, its highest position on the list so far, ahead of established business education brands in the US and Europe, including Chicago’s Booth School of Business, London Business School and HEC Paris. 

© Alamy

One of the criteria for the rankings is the salary of a school’s former students three years after they complete their MBA. That is one of the reasons for Ceibs’s position, says Yuan Ding, dean of the school: “Chinese students no longer need to travel overseas to achieve the best financial rewards for their work.”

Down the road to meet the chairman

The school differentiates itself from international rivals through the content and delivery of its lessons. It uses the Harvard Business School case study teaching method of discussing real-life situations that executives have faced, but it focuses on Chinese companies rather than those from the US. It also often combines classroom teaching with site visits to the companies.

A recent example involved Shang Gong Group, a sewing machine maker near the Ceibs campus, whose chairman Min Zhang is an alumnus of the school’s executive MBA. Students “went on the bus to the company, where they got a tour of the factory floor and met with the chairman,” says Prof Ding.

“Roughly 60 per cent of the cases being taught are Chinese companies, written by our own [Ceibs] staff,” he adds.

Last year, the school agreed to supply HBS with Ceibs case studies that use examples from China. “Harvard now takes our cases for its case bank without asking for them to be independently reviewed,” Prof Ding says.

Nevertheless, coronavirus travel restrictions are creating challenges for Chinese schools because students either cannot travel from overseas or are worried about future curbs.

Ceibs has been able to circumvent this by teaching from its European campus in Zurich, Switzerland, as well as Shanghai.

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Among those starting in Zurich is Pablo Pinos, who moved from Valencia to start a full-time MBA course — which meant quarantining twice. He expects to move to Shanghai before the academic year ends, which will require further self-isolation. But the inconvenience is worth it to be in China, a country he believes is more likely than Spain to advance his career. 

It is even more important to be in China now than last year, he says, “because you can see it developing faster after the pandemic. It is the land of opportunity.”


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