When Flora Ren left her job as a project manager at a pharmaceutical company in order to pursue an MBA, she looked at various schools around the world. Like many other Chinese MBA candidates, Ren considered going to the US or staying in China – but finally decided upon Australia.
“I think the US and China are the usual places that Chinese students consider,” said Ren, a full-time MBA student at the Melbourne Business School.
“Australia was right for me for a couple of reasons: I wanted to practice my English, and after graduation, I want to work in the Asia Pacific region. So, I didn’t want to be far from this market – I want to learn more about the region and be involved with the people here.”
Ren, whose husband is also working in Australia, isn’t alone in her decision. The Graduate Management Admission Council, a non-profit organization of leading international business schools, reports that the percentage of Asian graduate students sending GMAT scores to Australia increased 51%, from 1,813 in 2006 to 2,749 in 2010.
In addition, more than 165,000 Chinese students are currently enrolled in Australian schools, making China the largest foreign consumer of the country’s education.
Yet, while mainland students have been flocking to Australia’s multicultural environment, dynamic cities, great weather and world-class universities, other international MBA programs are now giving Aussie business schools a run for their money.
Thanks to its geographical position south of Asia, Australia is within easy reach of the major business centers of Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo.
It also boasts strong economic ties with Beijing. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade rising 15% year-on-year reaching US$85 billion in 2009, according to the Australian government.
“If I were a student in China or Hong Kong right now, I would be looking at studying in Australia since it is, by and large, the primary materials and minerals supplier to much of the Chinese economy,” said Robert Widing, dean of the Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) in Sydney.
He believes the more Chinese students who come to Australia to study, the better the level of understanding and communication between the two nations – and this can only be beneficial for what is already a reasonably interdependent trade relationship.
In addition to learning about Australia’s economic environment and business practices, the country’s MBA programs promote a strong, globally-focused education.
According to Brett Cunningham, the University of New South Wales’ country manager and associate director of the Australian Graduate School of Management’s (AGSM) MBA program in Hong Kong, there is a strong interest among Chinese graduate students to gain international experience.
“We’re experiencing increasing demand from Chinese students seeking to develop a global general management tool kit through our AGSM MBA programs,” he said.
“The AGSM MBA develops both hard and soft skills through our blended approach to learning and leadership …We receive feedback from many of our Chinese students who have really benefited from this style of management development.”
Indeed, multinational companies recruiting in China have a particular interest in MBA graduates who studied in Australia, Cunningham adds. He believes this is because such students are well-prepared for leadership roles, and have a deep understanding of the importance of teamwork.
Ren of Melbourne Business School agrees, describing how her MBA experience so far has gone beyond learning “systematical knowledge.” The Beijing native said she constantly has to reflect on her past management experiences, and examine how senior managers come to certain business decisions for their teams.
At the same time, Ren points to another incentive for overseas students – one that’s outside the classroom.
“Melbourne is a very beautiful city with good weather,” she said. “It’s dynamic and very, very diverse … I don’t feel like I’m a stranger here. I’m comfortable – people always say ‘Hi’ and smile to you.”
Despite these attractions, the US$18 billion Australia generates each year from overseas students is under threat. Competition among global MBA programs has changed dramatically in recent years and many Western schools are more aggressively targeting emerging Asian markets.
Student applications from China were expected to plunge by as much as 50% for some Australian universities and colleges in 2010.
“The US is making very strong inroads into China. The dollar is weak, making American programs more attractive, and visa restrictions have been relaxed quite considerably. They also need to attract more students since budgets were hurt so badly in the US, so schools are targeting India and China now,” Widing of MGSM said.
“That, of course, puts Australian schools under increased stress.”
Another drawback for overseas students is the difficulty of finding employment in Australia on graduation. Foreigners must obtain permanent residency to work in the country, and for Chinese students, job prospects in Australia don’t seem as bright as in their home country.
“I really want to work in venture capital, or mergers and acquisitions, after I graduate,” Ren said. “But in Melbourne, this is a very tiny market. There are only a couple of small-sized companies, and they aren’t comparable to what’s available in China.”
Furthermore, the cost of being a foreign student in Australia is rising. Chinese students were paying around US$60,000 in 2008, but this increased to US$120,000 last year, thanks in part to stronger Australian dollar and tougher requirements.
But Widing, originally from the US, believes overseas students get a high return for this cost.
“It’s not cheap, but it’s great value. Australia is a wonderful place to live,” he said. “When students come [to Sydney], they find a beautiful harbor and a city that’s safe, clean and pleasant – and that brings a lot of joys in life.”