China EMBA illustration by Nick Lowndes
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

I was at a conference of South American business schools last month where one of the hot topics was how important it is, particularly in developing economies, for business students to learn about government policy and the broader context of business as well as accounting, marketing and strategy.

How ironic, then, that the Chinese government, at exactly the same time, banned its officials from accepting scholarships on executive MBA programmes– MBAs for working managers. In a move designed to beat corruption, the government has barred “leading cadres” in the Communist party, the government and state-owned enterprises from signing up for costly business training unless they have official approval and pay the fees themselves.

Talking to those who run EMBA programmes in China, it is clear there are some practices that need to be publicly stamped out. In particular, there is a custom endemic in some business schools to give full scholarships to government officials and then effectively use those officials as a marketing tool to attract students from the commercial sector. The concern is that the business people attend the programme specifically to make contact with the officials – contacts they can turn to their advantage in the future.

But the ban raises a multitude of questions. For example, isn’t one of the main reasons for studying for an MBA or EMBA to develop a network? Alumni who responded to our EMBA rankings questionnaires this year reported that networking is more important to them than increasing their earnings or getting promotion in their company.

Does not the inclusion of government, non-governmental organisation and charity participants on these programmes improve the learning experience of those from business? John Quelch, former dean of China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, puts it succinctly: “The general principle of having the government sector and the civil society sector in the room with the corporate sector strikes me as very worthwhile.”

Indeed, many business schools in the US and Europe try to encourage more public sector participants to join their programmes by offering scholarships to these individuals or organisations – not dissimilar from the customs that the Chinese government is frowning upon.

A bigger issue relates to the inclusion of state-owned enterprises in the ruling. Should their practice of using their corporate budgets to pay for executives to study at business school be banned? Surely the effect of this could be simply to prevent these companies competing effectively in the future with commercially run organisations?

So far there have been more questions than answers, but there is one central issue here that increasingly needs to be addressed in China: quality. Is one of the concerns that government officials on EMBA programmes are bypassing entry requirements? And is another that they do not have to complete coursework and pass exams to graduate?

Those involved in the EMBA market in China say there are concerns this is often the case. As one dean says, if government participants are not up to scratch, it reduces the learning experience for everyone on the programme.

Whenever I have spoken to Chinese business school deans in the past they have emphasised one thing: the thirst for credentials that is so peculiar to Chinese executives. For many Chinese EMBA participants it is the credential rather than the learning that is important.

If the Chinese government is trying to address this issue and promote growth in academic rigour and high-quality teaching, it can only be a good thing. After all, this talk about quality programmes is not unique to China. In the US, for example, there is an ongoing debate about the quality of some online degrees, and for-profit universities are under fire over perceived quality.

Western business schools running joint-venture EMBA programmes in China have cautiously welcomed the edict, particularly where the programme is taught in English. As a general rule, government officials are likely to study for Chinese-language degrees.

Nonetheless, there are concerns that the government’s move will take the gloss off the EMBA market in the short term. Indeed, there are rumours in Beijing that many officials are already expunging their EMBA qualifications from their letterheads.

So at least there is one group that will benefit: the companies that print the business cards.

Get alerts on Executive MBA when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article