After working for 16 years, Alex Wan decided it was time to pick up the books again. A senior manager at Kohler Asia Pacific, Wan hoped to expand his business knowledge and his network by re-entering academia in search of an MBA degree.
Taking a two- to three-year break from the working world would have been costly, though, and leaving his job just didn’t seem to make much sense. So instead, Wan opted for the part-time BI Norwegian School of Management-Fudan University MBA program – allowing him to have the best of both worlds, as he saw it.
"I have a job and I wanted to continue working there. I didn’t want to stop for a full-time MBA program," Wan, 39, said. "But I’m at a point in my career where I need to get more knowledge of the business world. So studying in the part-time MBA program is a good opportunity – it will help me enter the next era of my career development."
Wan is not alone. More and more students are choosing part-time business education over its full-time counterpart, which has traditionally been favored. And despite the fact that companies once willing to reimburse tuition fees are now scaling back, most part-time MBA programs in China aren’t taking a hit.
At Shanghai University, where there are more than 100 MBA students, about 70% are in the part-time program, said Tony Koo, managing director of the school’s MBA Center and Global Management Education Institute.
Tsinghua University applicants first apply for MBA studies and then, once admitted by the school, choose to enroll in either the Chinese-language part-time or full-time programs, or the full-time international English-language MBA program. Over the past three to four years there has been a steady increase in part-time enrollment in the business administration programs, while the number of students choosing the full-time format has fallen.
"In the past, the result was always well-balanced. One-third of candidates would go into the part-time program, one-third in the international MBA program, and one-third would enter the full-time Chinese class," said Pearl Donghui Mao, executive associate director of MBA programs at Tsinghua’s School of Economics and Management. But over the last three years, part-time enrollments have been displacing full-time enrollments at a rate of up to 9%.
The trend is being experienced by many of the top business schools in China, Mao adds. It is a reflection of the mounting pressures college graduates face when it comes to landing a job in today’s economic environment. With the number of new graduates expected to reach 6 million this year, competition is only going to become more intense.
"It’s becoming more and more difficult for people to secure a job after graduating," Mao said, "so when they finally end up with a nice job, they have a much higher opportunity cost if they leave their job for a full-time MBA."
For expatriates working in China, pursuing a part-time business degree has similar appeal. Take Alexander Fransson, who moved to Shanghai for a Swedish Trade Council internship after he completed his bachelor of economics degree back at home in Sweden. Fransson’s original plan was to study for his MBA degree when he returned later, but things changed as his career progressed in China. Now a full-time consultant for the Swedish Trade Council, Fransson decided the part-time BI-Fudan MBA program would be a better choice.
"If I did a full-time MBA, there would be a lot of pressure. I’d have to take time off from work, fund my living costs and also pay tuition," Fransson said. "With the part-time program, of course I have to work extra hard. When I finish working, I study at night. But I’ve been able to manage both, and with most of the cases I’ve learned at school I can apply the lessons to work."
At a certain point in an individual’s career, picking part-time business education can also be more efficient.
"In a full-time program, you would have way more spare time than you need. Especially if you’ve worked in business before, the courses become easier because you have some of the background material in experience," said Andrew Kooiman, a Canadian studying in the part-time Rutgers MBA program based in Beijing.
Kooiman admits he’s often crunched for time. He has to juggle his studies with running his IT service company, Terracotta Systems, as well as the newborn baby he and his wife just had in December. But he doesn’t seem to mind. "It does impede on your leisure time, but in a way, it gets you more focused and energized," he said.
In devoting time to both school and professional priorities so as to avoid interrupting their careers, students might be missing out on the full range of opportunities that come with a full-time business education. What part-time MBA studies may lack is the deeper social exposure that comes from involvement in extracurricular activities. It is also more difficult to develop friendships and contacts when students cannot fully commit to academic life.
"In my view, the full-time program is always better than the part-time program," said Tsinghua’s Mao. "The whole experience – mingling with classmates, enjoying campus living, attending extra seminars and presentations – shapes your thinking.
"It’s not just about the classroom. Even though part-time studies provide a very good education, the overall participation of part-time students is less because they have to balance a full-time job with an MBA education."
Perhaps this is why at Fudan University’s School of Management, the most popular choice among students remains the full-time International MBA program jointly offered with the MIT Sloan School of Management. The number of applicants for the part-time Fudan MBA actually fell from 2,070 last year to 1,860 people for the 2009 intake. This is more of a result of a change in the school’s recruitment and interview procedures with candidates, according to Forkson Fu, executive director of Fudan’s IMBA program.
While it’s logical that professionals would be reluctant to forgo their salaries and take the risk of having added financial pressures, many still choose full-time business education, especially if there’s an interest in making a career transition later on.
"Many students usually do some clear career planning and they know what they want for themselves," Fu said. "We definitely see that full-time students are more likely to make a career transition, but this is not a causal effect. It’s not that because they take a full-time program, they change careers. It’s the other way – they want to make a transition, and then they study full time."
Theory and practice
For employers, the difference between students opting for part-time or full-time business programs comes down to how they can fuse their classroom and office experiences together.
Cummins, a diesel engine manufacturer, selects 35 "international high potentials" from its worldwide staff to study in the Kelley School of Business MBA program in the US, which is primarily done through correspondence courses and some on-site training in the US. In response to financial pressures arising from the past year’s economic slump, the company is postponing its 2009 class intake until 2010. But at the same time, Peter Boyle, executive director of purchasing for Cummins East Asia in Shanghai, supports the program.
"My staff who participate in the MBA program take what they learn from the different MBA modules and deliver it in our projects," he said. "But if any of my staff want to study full-time, it’s not really an option because I need them at work. Taking time off for full-time academia is really more valuable to the individual than the company."