As the regional MBA market develops, executives will have to do more homework to find the schools and programmes that translate into career dividends. A decade ago they would have had few options but to board the next plane for North America or Europe, but Asian professionals are now spoilt for choice in their own backyard. Homegrown and foreign schools - and frequently combinations of both - have flooded the regional market in recent years with diploma and Master of Business Administration (MBA) offerings. Few of these are doing better than the executive MBA (EMBA), a variation on the traditional version specially tailored for the time-pressed white-collar worker. While there's a staggering variety on offer, most share a few general characteristics. Students tend to be in their mid thirties to early forties, so lecturers can skip the management basics. Courses focus on real-life business cases or problems rather than the finer points of economic theory. Programmes are built to fit the demanding schedules of their student base, with evening, weekend and online classes or flexible terms ensuring learners can work towards a degree while holding down a job. Most EMBAs are not cheap. An EMBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business in Hong Kong costs about HK$620,000, while the Manchester Business School Hong Kong EMBA costs about HK$235,000. MBAs from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) or Singapore-based online graduate school U21Global are just over HK$100,000, while those like the MBA offered by Australia's Deakin University, which costs HK$160,755, edge nearer the HK$200,000 mark. These fees continue to rise but so do the number of professionals signing on. According to Manchester Business School chief executive Nigel Banister, the institution's Hong Kong intake has quadrupled over the past three years, and U21Global dean for business management programmes Helen Lange said its student body had risen from 500 in 2005 to more than 3,000. So why the growing appetite in Asia for what amounts to a risky investment, considering some will get more out of the classroom than others? Relatively healthy economies help, but industry insiders also point to shifts in corporate culture. 'Companies are recognising [MBAs] are an excellent way to increase the skill levels and retention of their best people,' Mr Banister said. Kathleen Slaughter, dean of Richard Ivey School of Business in Asia, said: 'Every corporation now is terrified of losing a good performer. There's much more support for executive education as companies have become much more interested in developing their employees.' Dr Lange said demand for higher education was 'exploding' in the traditionally underserved markets of the developing world, where online education might be the only means to reach students. Still, like every boom, the management education bull-run has its downsides. Academics such as Professor Slaughter worried that the sheer volume of EMBA programmes popping up could make it more difficult for prospective students to pick the right one. The most important - or at least the most obvious - indicator of quality remains the various MBA rankings compiled by publications such as the Financial Times and BusinessWeek which, Mr Banister said, regional corporates and students continued to consider 'very strongly'. Based on a usually undisclosed range of measurements, including quality of faculty, performance of alumni and number of students from top employers, the relatively high position in global rankings enjoyed by Richard Ivey, the Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) and the Manchester Business School lend them an important advantage, but even representatives of these schools admit prospective students should not base their decisions on rankings alone. Professor Slaughter said: 'They can be full of dangerous criteria.' More important factors include the relevance of the material on offer. Judy Tsui, dean of the Faculty of Business and director of the Graduate School of Business at PolyU, said the school's MBA for its home market included specialised elective subjects while imparting more general skills, 'designed to serve the needs of all managers'. Manchester Business School's Asian MBA programmes are geared to finance and engineering executives, though a more general MBA is in the works for next year. Deakin's MBA, although broad-based in content, is 'tailor made' for lawyers with law units approved by the Law Society of Hong Kong. It is also crucial, according to Mr Banister, that there are few visible differences between the parent institution and its local counterpart. Students should be entitled to courses of the same standard taught by the same faculty, and receive a diploma that carried the full weight of the parent school's reputation. 'The award should be exactly the same as it is on the home campus,' he said. 'If it has 'taught in Hong Kong' on it, it may not be of the same quality.' Many programmes in Asia obviously take this to heart - Richard Ivey's faculty, for example, is largely imported from Canada. MGSM, according to its dean Roy Green, replicates the programmes offered at its two Sydney campuses for students in Hong Kong and Singapore, and flies faculty members to the Asian cities to lecture each weekend. Industry certifications such as those offered by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business were also a positive sign as schools pursuing these showed, 'they're happy to lay themselves open', said Dr Lange, adding that U21Global was, 'three-fifths' of the way through the certification process. Many students, and their employers, also look carefully at returns on investment, which most institutions make some effort to measure through polls of alumni. Professor Green said MGSM data showed more than half of the school's graduates received higher pay packets when they finished their studies, 38 per cent got promotions and 46 per cent took on new responsibilities. Professor Slaughter said Richard Ivey MBA graduates had seen average salary increases of about 60 per cent. Academic leaders say choosing an MBA programme is a very personal decision in which rankings, financial or company concerns should not take the leading role.