East meets West in MBA for future masters of universe

‘Billionaires come to us to study’, Chinese business school dean says of his role in £77,000 joint course

April 3, 2014

Academics in the UK may be fighting a fifth year of below-inflation pay rises, but some business schools seem to inhabit a different financial universe.

Last month, Times Higher Education attended a champagne reception – held at the top of the landmark Gherkin building in London’s financial district – to celebrate the launch of a new executive MBA. The price tag? Nearly £77,000 for 20 months’ tuition.

“It’s bloody expensive,” said Sir Tom Hunter, the man credited with being Scotland’s first billionaire, who is an adviser to the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB), one of the schools running the programme. But, he told the assembled guests, the MBA was also “reassuringly expensive”.

Those who take the qualification – reassured by its price or not – will be taught by IMD, a business school based in Lausanne in Switzerland, and by CKGSB, at its campuses in Beijing and Shanghai.

In the MBA’s brochure, CKGSB boasts an alumni base of chairmen and chief executives who head companies that account for 13.7 per cent of China’s entire gross domestic product. In other words, their alumni run the rough equivalent of the world’s 16th biggest economy.

“We have the most powerful alumni in China,” Bing Xiang, CKGSB’s dean, told THE before the reception. “Billionaires come to our school to study.”

Just 11 years old, the school now has 43 full-time faculty, of which the “vast majority” have been lured away from a business school in the global “top 15”, Dr Xiang said. “We pretty much had to compete head on…with Stanford, with Columbia, with Wharton [for these staff],” he said.

The school is able to do this because it has the backing of the Li Ka Shing Foundation, the philanthropy vehicle of the richest man in Asia, and so is privately funded, unlike other institutions in China.

But another key factor, according to Dr Xiang, is that CKGSB is also the only institution in China to be governed by academic staff, who have secret ballots to decide on strategy, promotions and appointments. He joked that this made him “the least powerful dean in China”.

“The [Chinese] government tends to have a heavy hand in the appointment of senior administrators in university academic institutions,” he said. Institutional autonomy and financial independence are therefore crucial to attract top US business scholars, who might otherwise fear an overly powerful dean will appoint his “buddies” rather than operating a meritocracy, he added.

Dr Xiang had tough words for most other business schools in China, which he said simply impart Western research to their students. “In China, most of the business schools adopt what I call a teaching factory model, a training company model.”

Among other shortcomings of MBAs in China, Dr Xiang listed their failures to teach a “global mindset”, to connect “Western theory with Chinese practice” and to develop “softer” interpersonal skills.

In contrast, CKGSB was producing original business research about China rather than regurgitating scholarship based on Western economies, he said.

In its bid to poach “top guns” from the US, Dr Xiang acknowledged that CKGSB “cannot outbid the US institutions”. But what it could offer, he said, was access to a fast-moving and diverse laboratory for research – the Chinese economy itself.


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