ESCP Europe_Campus Berlin_
ESCP Europe's campus in Berlin

Partnerships between Chinese business schools and global academic institutions stretch back decades. As early as 1990, ESCP Europe Business School, which has campuses in six European cities, sent representatives to China to forge ties and build relationships. But the dynamic is changing, as China’s business schools look to open offices overseas, and Chinese academics bring their own perspectives to the curriculums.

“We believe that new management principles will emerge from China. It is really time to learn from China,” says Leon Laulusa, dean of academic affairs and international relations at ESCP, which has added agreements with 10 schools since its first partnership, in the early 1990s, with Renmin Business School in Beijing. They are now talking to one school which plans to open an office in Europe. Mr Laulusa is looking forward to playing host rather than guest.

Such international partnerships are growing. The Association of MBAs, which has over 40 accredited schools in the UK and over 30 in China, says about 20 of the Chinese institutions now have at least one partnership with a school in the west.

According to Andrew Main Wilson, Amba’s chief executive, most links involve only student and faculty exchanges, partly because of the language barrier for Chinese academics. But this could change as more partnership deals are struck.

“In the next five years, joint programmes between Chinese and western business schools will be as common as they are between European and American schools,” Mr Main Wilson predicts. No Chinese business school has yet opened a campus in Europe or the US, he notes.

Domestic academics are becoming more comfortable engaging students outside of China. Twenty years ago, most Chinese professors would have struggled to even conduct a class in English, Prof Laulusa recalls. The educational style was also different, emphasising theory rather than practical skills. “They were very eager to learn from western approaches in order to match the international standards,” Prof Laulusa says of ESCP’s partner schools. That has changed, as educators feel more empowered to share China’s contribution to business discourse. “Today, in an MBA English track, they are able to contextualise business and management fundamental courses as they relate to a Chinese situation.”

China helps foreign business schools to globalise, increases their student diversity, and gives their own students a chance to learn more about the crucial Chinese market, although there are often differences in approach. “Western business schools wish to plan for the long term in particular projects, whereas Chinese business schools expect us to be flexible and to operate academic projects quickly,” Prof Laulusa notes.

As well as attracting direct partnerships, China’s growing business education sector has also catalysed international business schools’ interest in the broader emerging markets opportunity. EMLyon Business School, of Lyon, France, first opened a campus in China in 2007, and subsequently forged a joint venture with East China Normal University.

Tugrul Atamer, EMLyon’s vice-dean, admits that when his school set up in China there was no plan apart from moving beyond Europe. But a collaboration with ECNU marked a switch in strategy towards building an international brand, with semi-autonomous campuses in different continents, achieved via partnerships, with plans to expand in India, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

“The future of business education is in these fast-growing countries,” Prof Atamer says. “We will offer these students the opportunity to get an internationally recognised education by studying at their nearest campus.”

Expanding in China can also help western business schools to diversify, says Patrick Hackett, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Liverpool, who sits on the board of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. The Sino-British university, based in Suzhou, is the largest international collaborative university in China, with 500 academic staff and 9,420 students, expected to reach 14,000 by 2019.

When XJTLU was formed, Brexit was not on the agenda. Now, British business schools have greater justification to strengthen ties with Chinese institutions and offset the risk of lost research funding from, and students in, Britain. “We were already pursuing a global strategy before Brexit,” says Mr Hackett. “But it adds impetus to what we are doing.”

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