Taking eight China-focused elective courses may feel like overkill to your average MBA student. But for those on a “China track” at Hong Kong University’s (HKU) MBA program, this is just the beginning. After finishing homework for “China Marketing” and preparing a presentation for “Doing Business in China,” HKU students may finish off the night with a specially chosen case study to analyze: “eBay’s Strategy in China: Alliance or Acquisition.”
Curricula of MBA and EMBA programs are changing to keep pace with student demand for ever more insight and exposure to China’s business world. This is especially true at HKU, where 70% of MBA students come from outside mainland China.
In addition to bulking up China-focused offerings at its home campus, this July HKU will add an intensive 160-hour Mandarin language course through Beijing Language and Cultural University to its list of course options. The four-week session also includes cultural education trips around the capital and site visits to Chinese businesses.
“If our students are really serious about doing business in China and working in China … they need to have some basic conversation skills,” said Chris Chan, MBA director at HKU. “They cannot expect to do well in China in this day and age if they don’t have any cultural or language sensitivity or capability.”
The university had previously only allowed students to spend terms abroad at Columbia Business School in New York or the London Business School for their international exposure. Student demand prompted the school to introduce a China option as well.
“American [students] were going to Europe and the Europeans were going to America, which is fine,” Chan said “But what they really want at the end of the day is China.”
While having a professional interest in China is what brings many potential business school students to the country, a significant proportion also arrive in search of a program to bulk up their international expertise as a whole.
Some business school programs have latched on to this need and are wooing students by playing up the “global” nature of their curricula. These programs, though China-based, are less focused on cultivating students with specific China knowledge.
Many China-based business schools have partnerships with American or European universities, with curricula modeled on the more-established western MBA and EMBA programs.
“We do not emphasize a ‘Chinese’ way, but rather a ‘global’ way of doing business,” said Chen Baizhu, professor of finance and business at the University of Southern California (USC), which offers an EMBA degree through its partner Jiaotong University in Shanghai. The Jiaotong-USC program curriculum is identical to the one used at USC’s Los Angeles campus, Chen said.
“Our goal is to produce executives that are effective working anywhere in the world and for any company in the world.”
Schools like USC point to interactions between Chinese and non-Chinese classmates in and outside of the classroom as a built-in method for students to gain first-hand knowledge about the country. Ira Cohen, chief representative of Rutgers’s China EMBA program, said many Rutgers students already have experience doing business in China. He sees this as a potentially valuable learning tool between classmates.
“Their shared professional experiences in China serve as living case studies and can be used as a source of knowledge about doing business in China,” Cohen said.
While non-Chinese business students must decide how deep they plan to delve into China, programs with greater numbers of Chinese business students are tweaking their curricula to offer greater instight and exposure to some of the cultural differences between China and the West.
“We’re trying to make a bridge between a global understanding [of business] and local knowledge,” said Sean Xiao, program manager of the Shanghai International MBA (SIMBA) program at Tongji University. “Students want to know … how their [western] colleagues think and how they can manage their teams to facilitate the progress of the whole company.”
One of the most important changes to the SIMBA curriculum, Xiao said, is its increased emphasis on training Chinese students in business ethics from a Western perspective.
“We used to just mention ethical codes, but it was not enough,” he said.
Getting feedback from professors, SIMBA set up a formal course on business ethics with a Chinese emphasis. The course examines Western and Chinese ideas of morality, using the Socratic method to evaluate ethical problems and concepts that may be new to most Chinese students.
Varying student body make-ups, different pedagogic traditions and new demands from students themselves will ensure that no two China-based business programs will be the same. Prospective students must find the program that best fits their individual needs.
All the while, it is important to keep in mind that classroom learning is only one element of a successful business program.
“It’s not only about what happens inside the classrooms,” said HKU’s Chan. “Students need to have on-the-ground experience.”
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