Until 2008 the world of business education was a relatively simple one. The one leading economic and political superpower had its MBA and the main players in that field were the benchmark for everyone else. Attitudes towards programme design, teaching methods, cohort composition and pricing policy were largely borrowed from the US model.

Five years on, with the US in political turmoil, European economies’ continued stagnation and dwindling MBA applications, the increasing international prominence of the Asia Pacific nations points to a shift in the global business education landscape.

Bolstered by increasing confidence and a genuine sense of purpose, business schools in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei and other Asian powerhouses are taking a fresh look at what their potential customers really want and what best satisfies that demand.

Recruiters across the world are desperate for globally minded talent with a desire to prove themselves in Asia, but find that the bachelors graduate is not sufficiently trained or mature enough, while MBAs are difficult to attract and too expensive – average Asian salaries are still way below those of the west.

Bridging the gap between an undergraduate degree and the MBA is the pre-experience Masters in Management degree, a qualification that is becoming increasingly popular in the east.

Recently, top Asian schools such as National University of Singapore and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology have launched pre-experience degrees or turned their research-oriented domestic MScs into professionally oriented English language-taught MiMs, such as the one offered by Tsinghua University in Beijing. This represents a refreshing openness to exploring what bright and ambitious bachelors graduates believe will give them the competitive edge in the global war for talent – rather than following the established model.

Last year’s statistics from the Graduate Management Admission Council showed that Graduate Management Admission Test scores sent to masters programmes accounted for more than a quarter of applications in Asia, a figure that has risen steadily year-on-year since 2008. And in western Europe, the traditional stamping ground for the MiM, that figure is 46 per cent – almost double what it was five years ago. In the US however, the figure sits stubbornly at 16 per cent – a 1 percentage point drop on last year and only a small increase on the figure from five years ago. It is clear that schools in the US are finding it difficult to move away from their cherished MBA-centric model.

Lower tuition fees, typically closer to that of an average bachelors degree, is clearly one advantage the MiM has over the MBA. Globally, students are worried about the prospect of funding their business education and whether they will be able to settle the debt. Starting salaries for a first job may not yet decisively differ for those individuals with a MiM and those with a bachelors degree, but the additional knowledge, networks and personal maturity will see MiM graduates better equipped to accelerate their careers from a standing start.

In some emergent economies it is common for families to invest their savings to ensure the best and brightest members get a top-class education – combine that with a lesser regard in these regions for the MBA and it is easy to see how the MiM makes a lot more sense to many.

But money is not the only factor. It can be argued that the teaching found on MiM programmes lends itself better to the future model of graduate employment – regardless of an individual’s location. When a student’s prime objective for taking a business degree goes beyond the immediate desire for a higher salary and more responsibility at work, teaching in innovative ways and covering less than traditional topics becomes less of a risk for schools.

Teaching faculty coming new to the MiM are often refreshed by the creativity of MiMs and some try out their latest research thinking in class. Having few to no points of reference, MiM curricula can include both local flavour and hard-edged regional expertise, ultimately moving a step away from a western-influenced standardised curricula. Thus MiM students are receptive to different ideas and different career paths. Because of this flexibility, they often prove ideal candidates for companies’ graduate trainee programmes.

Of course many young graduates will still go for the promising job offer straight after their undergraduate degree and many more will come to a point five years into their professional life where the MBA will still prove to be just what they need.

But it is clear that the MiM presents a real threat to the authority of the MBA as the business world’s pre-eminent degree. Asia has started to develop a taste for the MiM. In a future where top business schools will increasingly compete on a global scale, the call of the Masters in Management will not remain unheard by the legions of bright and mobile youth who value flexibility above anything else – a flexibility threatened by that six-digit MBA loan.

The author is executive director of CEMS – the Global Alliance in Management Education.

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