Before the mid-1980s, there was virtually no management education in China capable of preparing managers for a new, market-oriented, and increasingly international business environment.
There were no business schools in the western sense, and the MBA was practically unknown.
The business departments of local universities lacked both the quality and the quantity of faculty to offer credible programmes, and they lacked faculty capable of working with senior executives in an EMBA or executive education programme.
Meanwhile, the foreign MBA providers in China did have faculty, and brought them into the country. Their lack of in-depth knowledge of China and lack of real involvement with management did not hinder enrolment because at the time, there were no adequate substitutes.
During this initial stage, the emphasis was almost exclusively on teaching, and foreign providers using western teaching methods. Their market-orientated course enjoyed a competitive edge over rival programmes offered by domestic institutions.
But China’s MBA business has changed fundamentally during the past five years.
The number of domestic universities approved by the Ministry of Education to offer advanced business education programmes has quickly increased.
Today more than 100 universities have been approved for MBA degrees. They offer around 250 MBA and EMBA programmes, roughly 40 of which operate in co-operation with, or as host to, a foreign provider.
During this growth, China’s management schools have become much more competitive. The financial and administrative ability of the leading universities in recruiting internationally qualified faculty has increased.
The economic rise of China has attracted back the so-called “sea-turtles”, Chinese graduates and faculty with world-class management degrees and teaching or research experience. China’s potential students are now better prepared than ever before.
Employers now also realise the limited value of degree programmes and executive education courses that lack China-relevant content and context.
The time of importing management programmes and faculty into China is now coming to an end. Business schools in China are re-positioning themselves.
China is no longer a passive recipient of knowledge and know-how, but is developing into a power centre for influencing management teaching content and research methodology. In this respect, the world of education mirrors the rising influence of China on world affairs.
The success of China’s re-positioning over the next decade or two within the business education arena depends on three factors.
First, a handful of China-based business schools will need to emerge as an internationally-recognised elite – on a par in performance and reputation with the world’s leading schools.
At present, this is not yet the case, even though a small number of leading Chinese schools are prominent within the country, and are highly respected.
The rise of these schools into the elite will be led by the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua, by the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University, and by the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS).
Second, China-based schools will need to align themselves with practical priorities of business.
At present, Chinese and foreign faculty in China are reluctant to commit their research to the region.
With one eye on the faculty market in North America and Europe, they consider publication in leading international (that is, US-based) academic journals as necessary for career development.
But with abundant and exciting research opportunities, good funding sources, and an emerging group of elite business schools in China itself, the future will bring greater alignment with the region.
Third, China-based faculty will need to emerge as leaders in education and research.
This will reduce the passive import of knowledge into the Chinese classroom and will gradually alter the world perception of business. The challenge for education will no longer be: “How can we teach (and sell) western knowledge and know-how to Chinese students in China and abroad?”
Instead it will be: “What can we learn (and apply) from the sustained success of China’s economy, and Chinese businesses?” This development may be hindered by the need to change the Western mindset to embrace the goal of learning from China, rather than lecturing to China.
Co-operation between the leading Chinese business schools and their international counterparts is an important means to overcoming this obstacle.
Rolf D Cremer is dean of the China Europe International Business School