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Hong Kong is undoubtedly one of the world’s executive MBA hotspots. With a population of less than 7m, it boasts programmes from three of the top 25 ranked business schools in the Financial Times rankings this year – from Kellogg and HKUST, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Richard Ivey school at the University of Western Ontario, which has a campus on Hong Kong island.

Hong Kong’s local rival, Shanghai, just a two-hour flight, has just two programmes in the top 25 this year, to serve a population of more than 9m.

New York, long regarded as the EMBA capital of the world, with a population of more than 8m, is represented by only two schools (though they have four programmes ranked between them).

It is clear that, like Singapore and China, Hong Kong’s flagship programmes are dedicated to working managers rather than full-time students – full-time MBA programmes are not the gold standard here.

“Part-time is very popular in this part of the world,” says Andrew Chan, director of the EMBA programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “Asian people don’t want to quit their jobs and study full-time.”

Much of the reason is historical, believes KC Chan, dean of the business school at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “In the US they had the full-time market first. In Asia it was never the tradition.”

What characterises the EMBA market in Hong Kong is the differing appeal of the programmes. While the full-time MBA has become a commodity product in the region, these top-notch EMBAs are very clearly differentiated.

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, in partnership with the Kellogg school at Northwestern University, offers an American-style two-year programme, with weekend classes and overseas visits to the US. It has proven particularly popular with US expatriates who value the top-notch American qualification. It is the highest ranked of all the Hong Kong programmes, at number three in the world.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong sells its EMBA, ranked 15, as a programme for the top Chinese executives working on the world stage – all participants have to speak both English and Chinese. “We need to differentiate ourselves not just from a product perspective, but from a benefit perspective,” says Prof Chan. “We want to bring China to the outside world and the outside world to China.”

And the Ivey school at Canada’s University of Western Ontario, one of the world’s leading case study schools, believes it differentiates itself by its pedagogy, says Kathleen Slaughter, dean of Ivey Asia. “The case study attracts participants to the programme because it is very different from the lecture-based teaching they have been through as students.”

As with HKUST, the Ivey programme is particularly attractive to participants who are working internationally. “Expats are the ones who want the international degree that has international recognition.”

Ivey is the only non-Hong Kong school to have a campus in downtown Hong Kong, says Ms Slaughter. But these days both the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which has its main campus in Shatin in the New Territories, and HKUST, which has a campus on Kowloon, have opened centres for their executives on Hong Kong island cutting down the time to travel to classes for Hong Kong’s business elite.

And it is the elite that attend three these programmes. At CUHK, participants on the programme have an average of 14 years work experience; at Ivey the 40 participants have an average of 17 years of working experience. “We have made a clear emphasis this year that we want to be the programme for CEOs,” says Ms Slaughter.

And the programmes come with a price tag to match. The Kellogg/HKUST weighs in at US$88,000, Ivey at HK$570,000 (US$73,000) and CUHK at HK$236,000. ($30,000).

The CUHK EMBA may be cheaper than its main rivals, but in 2002 the school launched a second more global EMBA as part of the OneMBA alliance. The programme, offered in conjunction with four other business schools – the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Egade-Itesm in Mexico, Fundacão Getulio Vargas in Brazil and the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University – costs nearly double the local programme at HK$450,000.

Just 15 of the 110 OneMBA participants enrolled in Hong Kong this year, but Mike Hall, administrative director for OneMBA, argues that the price is no deterrent.“It represents about six months’ salary [for participants],” he says. “It’s a hugely valuable investment.”

The return on investment is strong in Hong Kong, and is particularly evident at HKUST. Three years after graduation, alumni from the Kellogg/HKUST programme earn the highest salaries of all EMBA graduates surveyed for the Financial Times EMBA2006 rankings – $294,374.

The OneMBA is the most global of all the Hong-Kong based programmes in that participants travel to week-long residencies at the partner schools as well as developing global teams around the globe to work online. Other schools are equally proud of their international class breakdown.

“My most proud claim is that there’s no majority [for any nationality] in that class,” says Steven DeKrey, associate dean at HKUST and director of the EMBA programme.

Unlike Singapore, where the government has been a an active participant in developing the MBA and EMBA markets, Hong Kong’s flourishing EMBA sector has grown largely through geography – its proximity to mainland China. And new business schools are entering the market all the time.

The University of Hong Kong, for example, which is one of the island’s eight local universities, entered the business school market just eight years ago – MBA director Chris Chan likes to compare his schools with Oxford and Cambridge in this respect. At present the school is concentrating on a large undergraduate programme and a full-time MBA, which has already established an exchange programme with London Business School and Columbia in New York.

Prof Chan is not daunted by the thought of competing with more established schools. “Business schools are never about history; they are about innovation,” he says. All the evidence in Hong Kong is that he is right.

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