Last year, South Korea's largest financial services firm, Shinhan Financial Group, asked the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) Business School to develop a graduate business management programme tailored to its needs. Shinhan required a speciality course for its executives tasked with global expansion. Rather than bringing in external talent, they opted to groom their own people.
HKUST custom-created an intensive six-month master's of global management programme. Only 25 of Shinhan's executives passed the school's stringent entry tests. Those who got in have been doing remarkably well. 'It has been a phenomenal success,' says Professor Steven DeKrey, senior associate dean and director of master's programmes.
'It takes heavy commitment from the company to select, support, and give candidates time off to return to school. The faculty has been very impressed by the candidates' commitment.'
Shinhan's move reflects a rising demand, especially from Asia, for specialist master's business degrees. Last year, demand for graduate business management qualifications swung towards specialisation, away from the more generalised MBA, the 2011 Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) annual application trends survey revealed.
A total of 649 programmes from 331 business schools and faculties worldwide participated in the annual study conducted between early June and mid-July each year. While GMAC reported growth in applications to all specialised programmes, master's of finance programmes led with 83 per cent of respondents reporting an increase in applications, followed by master's in management programmes at 69 per cent, and master's in accounting programmes at 51 per cent.
The findings indicate that both organisations and talent have realised that specialised master's degrees offer differentiation and an edge in the market. For candidates, such qualifications open doors to further opportunities. 'In the past, a bachelor's degree was sufficient education for employment, but increased job competition and stricter industry requirements have encouraged applicants to return to school,' the GMAC researchers said.
In Hong Kong, the local tertiary institutions experienced similar increases in applications to specialist master's programmes last year. Professor Chak Wong, Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) director of the master's of science in finance programme, spoke of a tenfold increase in applications.
Wong hesitates to credit market conditions for the immense interest in the finance programme. He suggests it could also be due to the extensive reformation that has made the course much more rigorous and cutting edge in recent years, citing the introduction of a sophisticated trading lab as an example. The programme, Wong adds, is also a lot more China-focused now, making it much more appealing regionally. 'Because we specialise in the Asia and Greater China market, we have a large number of candidates from Greater China,' he says.
At HKUST Business School, which offers a number of specialist master's and MBA programmes, applications to the former increased last year. 'The consolidated increase across these programmes was 5 to 10 per cent,' says DeKrey.
The GMAC survey shows that the rising numbers of foreign students have fuelled much of the upsurge in Asia, with both specialised master's degrees and MBAs reporting growth in overseas applications. A good 80 per cent of master's of finance programmes saw an increase in foreign applicants, while master's in management programmes saw a rise of 59 per cent.
The Asia-Pacific region, on average, accounted for 43 per cent of applicants, followed by Europe at 30 per cent. Applicants from Asia - led by India and China - were the largest source of foreign applications for full-time programmes.
So why the disproportionate amount of interest in finance? According to DeKrey, much of it has to do with Hong Kong's role as a regional financial hub. 'Hong Kong is one of the leading financial centres of Asia. We have a lot of opportunities in that field,' he says, adding that HKUST's foreign applications are mainly from China, followed by India and South Korea.
The demand for accounting qualifications is also on the rise. As with finance qualifications, much of the interest is again being driven by market events and conditions such as the 2007-2008 global financial crisis, increased regulation, the sovereign debt woes in Europe and the United States and more stringent demands from governments on reporting requirements, explains DeKrey.
Similar trends have been noted at the College of Business of the City University of Hong Kong (CityU). Applications to master's of accounting, finance and applied economics, as well as electronic business and knowledge management, increased last year.
'Business executives who wish to rise to the challenges will not just hold one master's degree, but several in different disciplines to enhance their expertise and professionalism,' says Professor Kelvin Yau, CityU College of Business associate dean.
For MBAs, GMAC says 37 per cent of full-time MBA programmes reported the same or greater application volume than last year. Smaller classes, with 50 or fewer students, had a better response than larger programmes, with only 20 per cent of the latter reporting increased applications.
GMAC says that MBA application volume tends to be closely related to economic conditions, with the number of applicants typically rising when the economy weakens.
'There appears to be a reverse cyclical effect,' a survey respondent tells GMAC. 'As the economy improves, the number of applications goes down.'
Corroborating this trend, applications for the HKUST's 2012-2013 MBA intake have risen by 9 per cent, says DeKrey, adding that the final increment will likely be larger by the time the application period ends.
The number of those taking graduate school entry tests, meanwhile, also falls in line with the trend. 'Registration volume for the GMAT [Graduate Management Admission Test] has grown sharply over the last several months - one indication of student demand that might benefit schools as they head into the next admissions cycle,' says GMAC president and CEO Dave Wilson.