Colleges and private faculties that offer MBAs and other executive education programmes in Hong Kong are engaged in a fierce competition to win the hearts, minds and dollars of tomorrow's aspiring leaders. The MBA landscape is a free-market battlefield like any other, complete with new entrants, discounts and some questionable players. So anyone thinking of doing an MBA should exercise caution when choosing a course. Howard Davies, associate dean at Polytechnic University's Faculty of Business, said his faculty was fully geared to prepare tomorrow's business leaders for the challenges that awaited them. 'Our catchphrase is 'Qualified for the real world', and we put a lot of effort into following that through.' Professor Davies explained that Polytechnic University's flagship programme was the doctor of business administration (DBA), which also ran in the mainland. 'It's a prestigious degree with an intake of only 20 on average a year in Hong Kong, and the same in the mainland.' The degree is part time and research based, and 'follows the idea of developing the scholar manager, which fits in well with Chinese culture'. Kathleen Slaughter, associate dean for Asia of the Richard Ivey School of Business in Hong Kong, said all MBAs pivoted around real-world case studies, and that Ivey had developed more case studies that were specific to Asia, its cultures and ways of doing business than any other school in the world. 'All of our cases are prepared by our own faculty staff and we work in collaboration with industry,' she said. 'I worked on one study for Intel together with a colleague from China, and it took two years to finish because we had to make sure we had the cultural balance right.' Institutions offering MBA courses often pride themselves on the international diversity of their faculty, and this faculty can be greatly increased by merging with other institutions. The Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) in Hong Kong recently merged with the Australian School of Business at the University of New South Wales. '[This type of merger] has given us access to more academics, which in turn means we can offer more breadth and depth in our teaching,' said Catriona Debelle, manager of the AGSM in Hong Kong. Also benefitting from mergers is the Manchester Business School, which recently joined forces with the world-renowned University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology. 'We guarantee 250 hours of private contact with the academics,' said Alistair Benson, academic director for the Manchester Business School. 'We've also designed a programme called Doing Business in China and we've commissioned special case studies for that. Hopefully those case studies will have a broader application, including for people studying in Britain.' One word that crops up time and again with specialists is 'experience' - most specifically, the minimum amount of real-world experience that students need before they can fully benefit from an MBA. None of the faculties spoken to would accept students who were not already time-served managers. Professor Davies explained that PolyU did not offer a full-time MBA, at least in part because it was looking to take people who had considerable management experience which could help them to use academic frameworks and concepts to make sense of their experience. 'The students bring their own experience and share it,' he said. 'They don't just get it out of books. That way, they can go back to their companies with something real to offer.' Ms Slaughter explained that the average number of years of management experience that MBA students at the Richard Ivey School had was 17 years. This ensured that students had a wealth of information to draw on in the classroom. 'If you have 40 people with an average of 17 years' management experience each, that's 680 years of management in total. And if you add the faculty members, that puts it up to more than 700 - so of course you can get into some very lively debates.' Mr Benson underlined the point: 'Our students are living in a case study environment. Their working lives are not theoretical. We're very strict on the experience requirement. The average age of students entering our programme is 31 to 32.' As for the value of obtaining an MBA for any aspiring senior manager, Ms Debelle said that the qualification was now indispensable for a successful career pathway in business management. 'It is becoming more critical to have a postgraduate degree, and particularly an MBA, to get past middle management. That used to be a very American phenomenon, but now it's global.' Supporting that assertion is one of her school's alumni, Claire Essex who is now Asia-Pacific marketing and business development manager at global law firm Baker& McKenzie. She completed her MBA earlier this year. 'For me the AGSM was a life-enriching experience,' she said. 'Professionally, it provided me with sophisticated business frameworks and an extensive business knowledge which I use in my present role every day. The MBA experience is not for the faint-hearted, but since completing the course it has been recognised through a significant promotion.' Each of these institutions places emphasis on the quality and integrity of its academic staff. All of Ivey Business School's programmes and courses are delivered by the school's academics flown in from Canada. Similarly, AGSM flies its academics in from Australia, while Manchester School uses its core of academics to teach the same programme worldwide. 'Our degree certificate doesn't state where you studied, only that you have achieved our MBA', said Mr Benson. 'So you have to achieve the same standards wherever you are. We effectively run the same programmes worldwide using the same academics, and the way we run them is designed to support those global standards of excellence.' As for the schools themselves, Mr Benson said: 'There are many new entrants and we all know that some of them are questionable. Any student seeking to take an MBA should do a lot of research and ask a lot of questions.'