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Twenty years ago management education was a pipe dream for most Chinese managers, but today China is the hottest place to study for an executive MBA. With five of the top 11 programmes in the 2012 FT executive MBA ranking taught there, China dominates this degree sector.

Ninety per cent of MBA students in China choose to study on part-time and executive programmes, making the executive MBA in China “very special”, says Qian Yingyi, dean of the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua, arguably China’s most prestigious university. “The Chinese business school programme that is world class is the executive MBA,” says Qian. “This is the Chinese contribution to the world in business education.”

One reason for this dominance is that today’s corporate leaders in China were educated before business education became fashionable. “Most of them did not go to business school in their 20s to do an MBA,” says Qian. He believes there are two further reasons for the executive MBA’s popularity. “The Chinese love degrees – it’s a very Chinese phenomenon. And the club effect in China is much stronger than even at MIT or Harvard.”

But there is also the fear among managers that in a rapidly changing economy it is folly to take time out to study full time, says Lu Xiongwen, dean of the School of Management at Fudan University in Shanghai. “Our part-time students are very senior and very experienced. If they quit their jobs they cannot catch up with their peers.”

As well as boasting top-quality executive MBA programmes, China is also home to some of the largest. Ceibs, the China European International Business School – which has campuses in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen – enrols some 700 new executive MBA students every year. “Ninety per cent of our business is teaching 40-year-olds, not 30-year-olds,” says dean John Quelch.

The executive MBA is also the degree of choice for China’s first private business school, Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (also with campuses in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen), which has some of China’s top executives on its programme.

Many of the Chinese programmes are taught through collaboration with other global business schools. Some schools – Fudan, for example – run multiple programmes with counterparts elsewhere.

Collaboration brings its own challenges, says Didier Guillot, director of the OneMBA programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The programme draws together five business schools in the US, China, the Netherlands, Mexico and Brazil. “We have had to learn about cultural differences, but this is what we are teaching. We have made it work.”

Christopher Earley, dean of Krannert School of Management at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, in the US, is also a fan of collaboration in global programmes. Later this month he is expected to announce an expansion of the Krannert multi-school executive MBA to include schools in China and elsewhere, as well as the existing partnerships in Hungary, the Netherlands and Germany.

Educational tourism is on the wane, believes Earley. “Schools have tended to take the executives and drop them in China for two weeks and it isn’t really integrated,” he says. “I have found it very dissatisfying.”

Single-school programmes have recognised this and many are beefing up the overseas experience. At Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, executive MBA students will soon visit India and study the operation course of the programme there with one of the professors. “We are taking students to areas where faculty do their research,” says Kathy Harvey, executive MBA programme director.

And at Melbourne Business School in Australia, its senior executive MBA teaches an intensive four-week block outside the country. The module is taught in China, Germany and the US with the help of Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Illinois, the US, and WHU Beisheim in Vallendar, Germany.

This fragmentation of the market also means a single business school can run multiple programmes. Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, for example, runs four programmes: two domestic executive MBAs, the online MBA@UNC and the OneMBA.

James Dean, dean of Kenan-Flagler, argues that the degrees do not compete with each other but appeal to different age groups with different levels of access to the school. But he believes all executive MBAs programmes will increasingly become online.

“When we started out we thought online was a pale imitation. We no longer think that,” says Dean. “It is astonishing how quickly the ground has changed over the past year.”

Other changes in the market relate to the aspirations of students. Gone are the days when executive MBA students were sponsored by their employer: at best only one-third receive financial support from employers today. At Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School at University College Dublin “participants used to be 75 per cent company-sponsored; now, it is zero”, says Damien McLoughlin, associate dean.

“Ten years ago executive MBA participants were picked by their firms,” says Harvey at Oxford. “That has changed significantly. The applicants are very focused on their own development, their own persona.

“The people we interview are thinking about who they are and who they want to be in 10 years. They are looking at board-level appointments and asking whether they want to do that.”

Another development in the executive MBA market centres around the use of the Graduate Management Admission Test as an entry requirement. Kristen Lynas at Insead, which runs its executive MBA in France, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and in Beijing in partnership with Tsinghua, says the school has dropped the GMAT in favour of its own truncated test to focus on the skills needed by these more senior managers. Other business schools are watching with interest as Insead reports increased applications this year.

Back in China, Fudan’s Lu believes the growth in executive MBA programmes will eventually slow down. “Executive MBA courses are now growing, but in five or 10 years they will step into maturity and the full-time programme will become the flagship.”

In China, schools are already showing signs of maturity. While a decade ago the trend was for US and European schools to establish programmes in China, Chinese schools are now establishing programmes overseas. Ceibs has launched its executive MBA in Ghana, for example. And Cheung Kong is planning to launch an executive MBA in London and New York.

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