"It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white; if it catches mice it’s a good cat." – Sichuan folk saying, made popular by Deng Xiaoping in 1962.
Since the late 1990s, MBA agreements between Chinese and foreign b-schools have often been for "joint programs": Classes are primarily or exclusively on the domestic partners’ campuses, but the foreign institution confers the MBA degree. Not anymore.
Establishing such a program requires approval from the Ministry of Education (MoE), which seeks to ensure that these partnerships help domestic universities develop. The MoE hasn’t approved any new joint MBA programs in the past few years, and I suspect one reason is that it has noticed a number of joint programs aren’t catching mice – delivering the desired development for the Chinese partners. Because of their structure, joint programs may become little more than facilities arrangements that bring the domestic partner only some rent and transient international cachet, no longer-lasting value.
Fortunately, Chinese b-schools and their would-be foreign partners are innovating different types of mousetraps. One is the dual-degree program, which confers a degree from both partners and doesn’t usually require specific MoE approval.
No approval required for dual-degree programs? That may seem counterintuitive, but it’s not. Domestic b-schools by definition must have much more "skin in the game" for dual-degree programs – not only a substantial amount of their curriculum and faculty time, but also their student quotas. B-schools here have quotas limiting their domestic MBA and EMBA admissions numbers, and since dual-degree programs confer the domestic partner’s degree as well as the foreign partner’s, the programs’ domestic students are counted. Given the valuable resources the domestic partners must commit, they have strong incentive to participate only in partnerships that compensate for the value of those resources. I can hear the Ministry saying to local b-schools, "Your skin, your game."
Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management has led the charge in dual-degree MBA agreements, forming two in 2001, and five more in the past few years. These are more like exchange agreements than distinctly designed programs, with each partner’s contribution a stand-alone component on their own campuses. Guanghua receives about the same tuition for the one year of Beijing study required in these agreements as it does for one year’s tuition in its own full-time MBA program. It addresses the quota issue by keeping the numbers down – the seven agreements combined have fewer than 40 domestic students enrolled.
In 2007, Tsinghua University and France’s INSEAD launched a dual-degree EMBA program, which they call TIEMBA. It’s more like a true program, with about half the coursework offered in modules held in Beijing, alternating with three other Eurasian locations. If the partners split the US$80,000 per student tuition proceeds according to percentage of faculty time contributed, Tsinghua is very well compensated, compared with the tuition per hour of faculty time it gains from its own EMBA program. INSEAD, however, is not. One assumes that it sees additional value in the development potential of the partnership: its faculty gaining deeper interactions with a top Chinese b-school and rising business leaders here.
In September 2009, Shanghai’s Tongji University and the UK’s University of Manchester launched a pilot of their own dual-degree MBA program. Every student in the program is counted against Tongji’s quota. The tuition of about US$30,000 per student is substantially higher than Tongji’s tuition for its own MBA programs, while substantially lower than Manchester’s. The program has the potential to be more integrated than TIEMBA. All required coursework is taught at Tongji, and the partners have done the spadework to divide faculty responsibilities.
Tongji’s leadership readily approved the integrated concept, given Manchester’s international stature, but Tongji program director Liz Wu relates that, "We had to demonstrate to Manchester’s quality control team, during their preparatory visits and via a lot of documentation, that we are a viable partner."
Can dual-degree programs deliver long-term value not only to the domestic partners of such programs, but to business education in China overall? The criteria for evaluation include:
– Is the program providing enough immediate value to the domestic partner to ensure the domestic partner’s strong commitment? The Tongji-Manchester program’s tuition revenue is divided roughly 50/50 between the partners. That split means that Tongji’s revenue, like TIEMBA’s, should be sufficient to drive Tongji’s commitment – though Tongji’s dean has stated, admirably, that actual profit isn’t important. Tongji sees the program as a long-term development opportunity and a truly strategic partnership.
– Does the domestic partner gain longer-term value? Faculty development is the crying need for the Chinese university sector, so any Sino-foreign affiliation that addresses this is promising in the long term, and any that fails to is troubled at best. In less than a year of operation, the Tongji-Manchester program has already engendered a Tongji PhD student gaining a one-year posting to Manchester for further study. A leading member of Manchester’s faculty will also be taking his sabbatical in China starting next year.
John D. Van Fleet works in the university sector in China. He lives in Shanghai.