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Business school retools executives

Charles Chen Jieping of the EMBA programme at the China Europe International Business School discusses the teaching of business acumen

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 June, 2013, 3:39am

Ten years ago, China formally introduced the EMBA (executive MBA) programme, offering Western management knowledge to local corporate honchos. The country has since become the largest EMBA market in the world, with more than 10,000 EMBA students graduating from around 60 business schools every year.

Boosting the demand is Chinese entrepreneurs' increasing desire to retool themselves with the most advanced management theories as the nation edges closer to becoming the world's largest economy.

EMBA education first emerged in the United States in the 1940s and thrived in the West for decades. Although senior executive education started late in China, it caught on quickly. The latest global EMBA ranking compiled by the Financial Times in October shows seven Chinese business schools made it to the Top 100 around the world.

The EMBA programme jointly run by Beijing's Tsinghua University and French business school INSEAD and another managed by the Shanghai-based China Europe International School (CEIBS) even broke into the top 10, with a ranking of 4th and 7th, respectively.

CEIBS, a joint venture of the Chinese government and the European Union set up in 1994, was the first in the nation to start EMBA classes.

It was not until July 2002 that the Ministry of Education formally approved 30 mainland universities to start offering EMBA classes and issue degrees. It was extended to another 32 universities in 2009.

While the EMBA market grows rapidly in China, some have raised doubts about the programmes' staggering tuition fees. Critics point out that networking often seems to be the main draw for students to these programmes, rather than knowledge.

Charles Chen Jieping, director of the EMBA programme and associate dean at CEIBS, who has seen this market boom and evolve over the years, shared his vision of EMBA education in an interview with the Post.

"We don't want to become a 'billionaires' club'," he said. "We want to be a learning platform linking East and West through teaching, research and business practice. Our goal is to educate responsible leaders versed in 'China depth' and 'global breadth'."

Before joining CEIBS in 2008, Chen worked as a tenured faculty member and head of the department of accountancy at City University in Hong Kong. He worked there for 13 years. He currently teaches financial statement analysis and corporate governance at CEIBS, where he is a professor of accounting.

The EMBA programme has been in China for 10 years now. What do you think are the major differences between the EMBA market in China and in Europe or the US?

First, our students are different. Chinese EMBA students are older than their peers overseas. They are generally around 40. Most of them are top-level executives in enterprises or government departments. By comparison, the average age of students in foreign countries is around 34, and most of them are mid-level managers, such as directors of human resources or sales.

That's why we cannot simply use European or American EMBA textbooks in our class. We are giving more courses on leadership, strategy setting, merger and acquisition, as well as corporate governance to meet the needs of higher-level executives.

What is the profile of EMBA students in your school? Have there been any changes over the past few years?

Yes, there have been. Now, nearly 50 per cent of our students are from local private enterprises. Such students accounted for only a third around five years ago. Meanwhile, we have fewer students from multinational companies as these companies have been cutting their staff training budgets since the 2008 financial crisis.

CEIBS now runs two EMBA schemes. One is taught in English and the other in Mandarin. We recruit more than 700 people per year. We have over 8,000 alumni as of now.

What do Chinese entrepreneurs actually want from EMBA programmes?

Many Chinese entrepreneurs have accumulated much work experience but haven't had the opportunity to receive systematic management education. Some of them may have been successful in business or have gone through difficulties. They come to us looking for answers as to why they succeeded or failed. They expect to find the answers here and to be inspired by professors' analyses of case studies and discussions with classmates.

These senior executives can also be very lonely people. The EMBA, for them, is also a place to find and connect with people with similar experiences and to learn from each other.

Tuition fees of China's EMBA programmes have been rising very fast. Why is that?

This year, the tuition fee for our two-year EMBA programme is 568,000 yuan (HK$719,000). Fees rose 10 to 20 per cent annually from 2008 to 2011. They rose only 5 per cent last year due to the weaker economic environment. In other schools, the fees range from 200,000 to 600,000 yuan.

Whether or not the tuition fee is too high depends on the perspective of those attending the programme. Many of our students are chief executives or general managers. They make critical decisions every day and may make or lose millions or tens of millions of dollars for their companies. If they can avoid even one mistake by taking our courses, it would save them and their businesses a lot of money. Besides, our tuition fees are still lower than what schools with similar rankings in the US charge.

The most popular management theories in the world are from the West. How does your school adapt them to China's needs in daily teaching?

The courses in our programmes are based on those at the Wharton Business School of Pennsylvania University. I have fine-tuned it since 2008 by adding more content on leadership and culture. For example, our students in English-language classes now take a one-week course at West Point, the US military academy. They attend sessions presented by military officers and even receiving military training. We've also started offering classes on Chinese philosophy and literature to our students.

Why are universities in China so enthusiastic about EMBA programmes?

Compared to MBA programmes, which are for young business executives, EMBA education is considered more effective, because the students are often the decision-makers and can apply management theories in their own companies right away. Another important reason is that EMBA tuition fees are relatively high. They are the major source of revenue for many business schools.

What do you think is the major bottleneck for China's EMBA education?

Lack of teachers. It's very hard to find capable EMBA professors. There are some successful professors in foreign countries, but they are only familiar with case studies in Europe or the US, with little knowledge about China. Chinese scholars often lack a world view and systematic management research skills.

Currently around 70 per cent of our teachers are foreign passport holders. They are either Chinese scholars who have lived and worked overseas for a long time or expatriates who have stayed in China for at least 10 years.

What's your view about the future development of EMBA education in China?

I think it will become more localised as China's enterprises get more and more sophisticated. We are past the stage of using foreign experience to address local problems. You can see the same thing has happened in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan already. Another trend, I believe, is that Chinese cultural elements, such as Confucianism, will be increasingly a part of EMBAs.

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