CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW publishes a Focus on Business Education twice a year. Each issue, we try to provide a statistical picture of what, exactly, is going on in the sector at large, and in every time we encounter the same problem: a dearth of quality statistics. There are stats here and there on the number of business programs, and a patchwork of private surveys, but far too many of the statistics available are unreliable, extrapolated or contradictory.
Imagine our joy, then, when we heard that something called the National MBA Steering Committee had published a statistical index purporting to provide details on everything related to MBAs in China. We imagined graphs, tables, charts, cross-indexes and demographic profiles of students, professors and administrators.
Our excitement was, if anything, increased by the fact that the work, formally titled the MBA Education Statistical Compilation, is nearly impossible to find. It is not for sale. It is not online. Apparently it has been distributed to a selection of MBA program administrators, and that’s all. We assumed this meant that the insights in the work were so electrifying/disturbing/embarrassing that they could not be exposed to the general public.
Unfortunately, the work itself is embarrassing, and in a pedestrian sense as opposed to an interesting one – it is highly unreliable.
Take, for example, graduation rates. The new survey reports that in 2009, MBA graduates from surveyed universities declined by more than 21%. That’s startling, but even more startling is some of the declines the report assigns to certain programs. The book says that while Renmin University graduated 348 MBAs in 2009, it only graduated 68 in 2009. Shanghai’s Tongji University dropped from 575 to 79. Counterbalancing the radical declines in graduation were some equally astonishing increases. Sichuan University, for example, graduated 571 MBAs in 2008, up from 71 in 2008.
These numbers are neither cause for celebration nor despair. The Tongji University stats are demonstrably wrong; administrators report graduating 550 MBA students in 2009, and it seems safe to assume that the rest of these numbers are unreliable.
The humor in the situation is that as a rule statistics related to higher education are spun in the best possible light. Graduate employment rates are manipulated significantly by the relevant bureaus: The Ministry of Education (MoE) reported that 68% of college graduates were employed in July of 2008, and the exact same figure in 2009. This is suspicious enough, but it turns out that the methodology has problems too.
The MoE considers enrollment in graduate school to be equivalent to paid employment. Other universities report unpaid three-month internships as jobs, or require an employment contract prior to permitting graduation. But private surveys have suggested more than half of Chinese college graduates are unemployed, and that salary levels remain flat.
So while it seems reasonable to reject the National MBA Steering Committee as a reliable source of data on business education in China, there are causes for concern nevertheless. According to reports in state media, college in general is becoming less popular among Chinese youth. Provincial authorities say significantly fewer students sat for the national college entrance exam last year. In Shandong there was a 10% decline. Similar decreases were reported by authorities in Shanghai, Hebei and Henan.
It is difficult to tell whether this malaise is spreading to the ranks of MBA applicants. The survey reports an increase in student entry in 2009, but that statistic can’t be trusted either.
While students at top-ranked schools unsurprisingly report improved salaries and career prospects upon graduation, most schools are not, by definition, top-ranked. Too many of them are under-staffed, over-priced factories for churning out MBA graduates who subsequently find they are of little value to the wider market. These graduates are not satisfied with flat paychecks, much less fake job contracts or government handout positions.
But until we have a better statistical picture, it’s difficult to say with any authority which way the market is going. One would hope that the people who have the most to lose from a general sense of dissatisfaction with education, and the loss of hope it implies, would put a little more effort into learning what, exactly, is going on.