An army of managers in need of training

December 13, 2002

Paul FitzPatrick reports from Asia on a hunger for MBAs.

When people talk about "unleashing creativity" or "becoming emotionally literate", the People's Liberation Army may not spring to mind. But times are changing. As well as sponsoring their officers to take MBAs, the Chinese military is investing in state-of the-art management training to achieve its goal of becoming a modern intelligence-led organisation.

The army is just one example of Chinese enthusiasm for management education. But as the country undergoes an unprecedentedly rapid economic and social transformation, there are concerns that management education and training has not kept pace. Under Mao, all forms of management education and development were prohibited. MBA education in Chinese universities did not take off until 1991. Not surprisingly, there are still chronic skills deficiencies in these areas, especially among middle and senior managers.

Despite the huge demand, there are few universities offering MBA programmes in China. About 62 Chinese government universities offer state-approved MBA programmes, and the total enrolment is about 30,000 students. Acquiring an MBA at a government university in China is not easy. To be accepted onto a programme, candidates must be proficient in English. Many universities have a limited number of places and do not take applicants over the age of 40.

Many Chinese go abroad to study. The US is the most favoured destination, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to acquire a visa. Australia and the UK are easier in this respect. Distance learning is another route, but it is in its infancy in China.

A number of US and Australian universities have tried to grab a share of this burgeoning market by offering offshore MBA programmes in Mandarin at their centres in China. Modules are taught by teams of visiting overseas professors (with interpreters) and local professors. The target market is middle and senior managers who do not speak English. The average age of candidates enrolled on these programmes is 42, and about half of them are sponsored by their employers. Examinations are in Mandarin - but, as a safeguard, most universities insist that some scripts (usually 20 per cent) are translated into English for moderation purposes.

The booming demand for MBAs has also attracted plenty of bogus universities trying to cash in. Most are registered in the US because all that is needed to register a university there are three PhDs, one lawyer, one accountant and 25 square metres of office space. Although these universities are registered, they are not accredited, so their degrees are virtually worthless in most countries. According to a Beijing source, only 3,000 of the 10,000 tertiary institutions operating in China are accredited. Most adopt names that bear a similarity to an august institution such as Yale, Harvard or Michigan. Many set up office near a famous Chinese university. Strictly speaking, not all non-accredited universities are bogus. Well, let's say that some are less bogus than others in that they offer structured programmes of study. To help address the problem, China recently published a list of approved overseas universities.

As China emerges as an economic power, comparisons are being drawn with Japan's postwar boom, which saw the rules of corporate management rewritten. Singapore's prime minister Goh Chok Tong recently compared China's boom to "the emergence of ten postwar Japans". The effect on management studies worldwide could be vast.

Paul FitzPatrick is founder of Concepts ASIA Management Training, Singapore. He was previously a visiting lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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