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When Hong Kong’s oldest university first launched its full-time masters of business administration six years ago, the fledgling programme had just 12 students, all of whom came from Shanghai rather than Hong Kong.

This reflects the fact that Hong Kong University’s programme was born more out of serendipity rather than deliberate design. The 97-year-old university has long offered a part-time MBA programme, but did not really make a mark until 1997, when it expanded its part-time course to Shanghai, by partnering with Fudan University to offer an international MBA programme there.

That quickly grew to become a sizeable programme and, by 2002, a group of Shanghai students decided that they wanted more than just a part-time programme in their hometown.

The students said they were willing to take a year off work and move to Hong Kong if a full-time programme was available. So Chris Chan, the programme director, and his colleagues cobbled one together, and the university’s full-time MBA programme was born. Mr Chan recalls, however, that back then: “The focus was very much on the part-time programme.”

Seven years later, that has changed. HKU’s full-time MBA programme now attracts 49 students from all over the world and is one of the fastest-developing MBA programmes in Asia. The programme’s success has been well-recognised: from its first entry into The Economist’s ranking five years ago at 79th in the world, the programme climbed to 37th place last year.

A big reason for this rise is HKU’s partnership with London Business School and New York’s Columbia University, which allow their students to spend the first nine of their 14 months taking core courses in Hong Kong, followed by three to four months in either London or New York, where they are free to take elective courses, before returning to Hong Kong for a final project.

Sending students away for a significant part of their course may seem unusual for a university in the early stages of building up its own programme, but the basic idea – finding a well-established partner rather than doing everything from scratch – is no doubt familiar with the programme’s students.

An early form of that idea was tested in HKU’s partnership with Shanghai’s Fudan University, which made the business school the first from Hong Kong to offer an international MBA programme within mainland China. “When we first formed the faculty 10 years ago, we thought and believed that the future was in China, so we went to Shanghai,” Mr Chan says. “We were one of the first [universities] to do so. No one was there then.”

Even with the basic idea in place, however, the details of making the partnership work was no easy task. An important decision, says Mr Chan, was for HKU to pay both LBS and Columbia, rather than simply conducting an exchange programme. “This way, HKU students get full access to the courses and the faculty at [LBS and Columbia],” says Mr Chan. It also means that, with every HKU student spending time at either of the two schools, “it’s a critical mass, and [LBS or Columbia] pay much closer attention to them”.

The partnership has also been helped by the fact that HKU’s faculty is young and relatively small, Mr Chan says. This has meant that the core courses, which the students study at HKU before they go abroad, can be tailored to meet the pre-requisites of the more specialised courses at LBS or Columbia.

Gary Biddle, dean of the faculty at HKU, points to HKU’s history and close ties to China as among the advantages that have prompted LBS and Columbia to team up with HKU. The university’s long history, in particular, means much of Hong Kong’s business and political elite are among the alumni. “Here there is a 100-year history, and the alumni are the who’s who of the region,” he says, “If you want a management course and you’re not in China already, this is the place. If you are already in China, then this is still a great place for global perspective.”

This has practical advantages, not only for helping students establish a network of contacts, but also for compiling one of the most complete collection of case studies about Hong Kong and Chinese businesses – many of which are headed by HKU alumni.

As HKU enters its third year of partnership, Mr Chan is already looking ahead to the programme’s next evolution. “I want to improve our output,” he says, explaining that the way to do so is to refocus on HKU’s inherent strengths. “We want to give students a very high dosage of Hong Kong and China on the ground” by offering more courses that focus on the dynamics in the region.

To that end, additions planned for this year’s programme include an intensive crash course in Mandarin at the beginning, as well as an option for students to choose Shanghai as a third option to London or New York. Mr Chan says that at the end of the day, however, “it is not about where the school is located, but what the students learn”.

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