In addition to serving Chinese students who come to the UK to study businesss, Manchester Business School (MBS) has also been operating in Asia for 15 years, serving residents in Hong Kong, mainland China, Singapore, Malaysia and elsewhere. Nigel Bannister has been with MBS for the last five of those years. He was originally brought on board to improve the transnational education capabilities of the school. CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW spoke with Bannister about entrepreneurship, viable academic alternatives to the MBA, corporate responsibility and the current state of business education in China.
Q: It sounds like your Asian MBA program is growing. What is your student population like?
A: This year we have about 400 executive MBA students in Hong Kong, and about 100 of them are mainland nationals from Shenzhen or Guangzhou. They commute to Hong Kong for their programs. In addition, our school in Manchester attracts more Chinese students than any other business school in the United Kingdom. Our alumni base in Greater China is about 1,500.
Q: So has the downturn been good for business?
A: Full-time programs tend to fluctuate with the economy. During downturns, applications increase. Applications to Hong Kong double with each intake. Applications from all over the world to Manchester have increased, but it’s not a dramatic increase, maybe 15-20% across the board. The increase in part-time program applicants is more substantial, maybe 55% each year, and that increase rate has continued. Part-time MBA program enrollment has been growing for some time, and that seems to be uniform, steep growth. This is because top business schools are offering much more viable part-time programs and technology is more able to assist with the soft learning portion of the program. And then employers are now recognizing part-time MBAs are a good way to improve staff. In China it’s the same as the rest of the world. Applications from south China in particular are up.
Q: Is there any difference between full-time and part-time students in terms of profile?
A: Full-time students tend to have an average age of about 27. They come to Manchester for 18 months, and often they come to step out. They use the MBA program to change the sector they work in and kick-start their career. In the past a lot of these people went to work at investment banks and consultancies. These days, there are an increasing number of people who are looking for a way to become skilled to start their own businesses. Part-time students, meanwhile, tend to be older, and they are looking to step up, not step out. They are in junior or middle management positions, looking for an opportunity to move into senior management positions in the same sector.
Q: How are they paying for it? Hasn’t there been a decline in companies paying for this sort of thing?
A: Yes, there has, and it was at a low level already in China. If you think about Western countries, there has been a growing number of companies that have partly or fully sponsored employees’ MBAs. In China, we haven’t seen any substantial evidence of companies supporting students in this way. We’re keen to grow our student base in China, because we believe it’s good for our faculty and our development, so we give a 25% scholarship to all our mainland students.
Q: Some people say a lot of Chinese applicants lack the experience necessary to benefit from international MBA programs. Do you agree with this? And what do you do with less experienced applicants?
A: You’re right, an MBA needs considerable experience, and that is more difficult for students coming from China, who often lack international experience. In MBA programs, Chinese students have very good technical skills, but are less able initially in the more creative and discursive subjects like strategic management. But our role is to encourage them so by the end of the program they are equivalent to other students. At the same time, our specialist non-MBA Masters programs – Masters in quantitative finance, innovation and entrepreneurship, health-care management and so on – do not require experience; they’re technical programs, and so new graduates are at no disadvantage. The number of Chinese applications for these programs has increased over the last few years.
Q: Where are your students going after graduation?
A: As far as Chinese students were concerned, part of the deal of going to a Western business school was not only the qualification but also because that was where they saw their career prospects. But these days most of them are going back to China, getting positions with multinationals corporattion engaged with China or Chinese companies that are looking to expand internationally.
Q: It seems like there’s a need for a new kind of manager in China these days. Has your program made any curriculum adjustments? More focus on risk management or corporate responsibility, for example?
A: Yes, I think it’s true that those people below senior levels might not have seen current circumstances. For some years we’ve had parts of our programs focused on risk management, sustainability and corporate social responsibility. But they have not been the most popular electives and they haven’t been valued by employers in the past. I think things have changed. I think employers see that people with these kinds of backgrounds will serve them well. So we’re getting more students who are encouraged to participate in those sorts of programs.
Q: What about stimulating entrepreneurial ventures? Some people say MBA programs aren’t usually very good at this.
A: You could be right in general, but certainly the top schools like us can foster entrepreneurship. We’ve always had a number of our students who take that particular route. We have an enterprise center where we have 1,600 students studying entrepreneurship. We are currently supporting about 40 companies the students have started. I think the same thing is true for part-time students. In part due to lower opportunities at multinational corporations, they are becoming entrepreneurs by necessity.