It was only the hardiest adventurers who took up the chance to learn about the mysterious East when China first opened its doors to foreign students in 1950. Now, in an age where China is an economic powerhouse, foreign students have traded their backpacks and guidebooks for a suit and tie as droves of experienced professionals are seeking admission in Chinese business schools.
Driven by the huge gap in the supply of internationally trained managers five years ago, thousands of foreign students from the United States and Europe are enlisting in Chinese MBA and EMBA programs in an effort to get an edge in China's increasingly competitive global business field.
But, unlike six years ago, the focus for business schools is no longer just learning about China. The goal posts have moved as rapidly as the economic tides have shifted.
"We are no longer the 'how to do business in China' supplier, we are the 'how to manage in fast growth markets' supplier to companies on a global basis," said John Quelch, vice-president and dean of the China Europe International Business School based in Shanghai.
With China's Ministry of Education looking to attract more than 500,000 international students by 2020, the number of foreigners seeking elite MBAs akin to those obtained at internationally renowned schools like Harvard or Oxford is showing promising growth.
Leading the pack is Quelch's CEIBS. In 2009, Forbes ranked the CEIBS business MBA program as the eighth among the top 10 non-US two-year MBA programs in the world.
CEIBS has seen its percentage of foreign students almost double from 20 percent to 39 percent over the past 5 years. Other top business schools in China, like Fudan University's EMBA partnership with Washington University and Tsinghua University's MBA program with the MIT Sloan School of Management have also seen positive results.
Detailed in the National Outline for Medium and Long-Term Education Reform and Development (2010-20), the Chinese government is making large endeavors to educate the next line of business leaders.
Because of their efforts, Chinese business schools have gone through one of the most rapid evolutions since the first Chinese MBA programs were offered in 1991, when just 90 Chinese MBA prospects enrolled at the first nine schools offering the courses.
But in the 20 years that followed, China has managed to develop a handful of some of the top sought-after MBA programs by partnering with prestigious US and European universities to develop a curriculum that conforms with the international standards.
Among China's most recognized is Tsinghua's IMBA program, developed in 1997 through a partnership with Massachusetts-based MIT Sloan School of Management.
"We've been receiving great help from the Sloan School on developing the curriculum and training our faculty. This has built the solid foundation of our MBA program," said Qian Yingyi, director of Tsinghua's School of Economics and Management.
While the reputation of these MBA programs is often born out of partnering with Western schools, which allows universities like Tsinghua to call upon the decades of business school teaching experience shared by established institutions like MIT Sloan, Chinese business schools are drifting away from their Western foundations. Rather, they are determined to differentiate themselves by capitalizing on the nation's unique global position.
It was the prospect of learning the China's fast growth markets that first drew 26-year-old Mike Tuan out of a 120,000-dollar-a-year sales and marketing job in the US to pursue his MBA in China.
"Right now, China is being used as a global model, and understanding that model is a big advantage," the Tsinghua MBA graduate student said.
The prospect of being able to rub shoulders with China's current and future leaders is perhaps one of the biggest, but unsung, benefits for foreign students studying in China.
By graduating from Tsinghua's partnership program, Tuan said he will be able to associate with both Tsinghua and MIT Sloan's alumni network - a big advantage for someone seeking business opportunities.
"When you are doing an MBA, half of it is networking, and you want to make the network where you want to use it. That alone is a good reason to come to China," he said.
In addition to getting access to a degree and an alumni network branded with a top-notch university, many foreign students are drawn to China by the cheaper costs of living and tuition.
For international students at Tsinghua's IMBA program, tuition for the two-year program costs 29,800 dollars. If the same student were to fully enroll at MIT Sloan's MBA program in Massachusetts, the cost for tuition alone would be around 50,300 dollars. And for students who take advantage of China's cheap food and housing outside the classroom, the savings are even greater.
This means foreign students studying in China can almost halve their MBA tuition costs without having to sacrifice their brand name.
Sparking the growth in Chinese business schools has been the whirlwind of multinationals expanding operations to China over the past 10 years as foreign companies rush to get a grip on the next big consumer market. At the end of 2011, foreign direct investment in China topped 116 billion US？dollars, and that number is only set to go up as foreign companies see growth back home slow due to economic problems.
"Because of the increasing importance of China and the growth that it represents in overall corporate performance among many multinationals, they no longer rely on growth coming from the developed markets," Quelch of CEIBS said.
With more than 260,000 foreign students, China is the fourth-leading destination worldwide for students studying abroad full time, behind France, the UK, and the United States, according to the International Institute of Education's (IIE) 2012 Project Atlas report. Around 30 percent of those students are pursuing MBA and EMBA degrees.
Those numbers are set to rise as efforts by the Chinese government to attract foreign students start to show results. With more than 800 million yuan going toward scholarships for international students in 2010, housing incentives and a jump in accredited schools - the China option is becoming increasingly attractive.
"China has been very strategic in providing financial incentives and information to attract more students," said Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president of IIE, a US-based NGO promoting international exchange.
Attracting students is not only valuable for China in terms of helping the world comprehend the often-misunderstood rising superpower, it is also profitable.
In the US, where education draws more than 700,000 international students a year, tuition fees brought into the country by foreign students accounts for 13 billion dollars in the US economy.
But, while the benefits of studying in one of the world's fastest-growing economies may be numerous, the opportunities for foreign MBA graduates to work in China aren't always as plentiful as China's swelling market may suggest.
Despite a critical need to fill a gap in the managerial class six years ago - in 2006 McKinsey & Co estimated that China would need more than 75,000 top-level executives by 2010 - tens of thousands of Chinese students took up the call, enrolling overseas and returning home to fill those positions.
The result is that many companies, both foreign and domestic, prefer to hire Chinese graduates who have studied abroad and earned international experience when looking to expand operations.
"It's difficult to learn the intricacies of China's business culture just by studying in the country for two years. It's almost impossible," said Ben Leary, CEO of Column Associates, a Beijing-based talent management agency.
On the other hand, Chinese students studying abroad are able to grasp Western business concepts quickly and apply them to the Chinese way of doing business, he said.
In addition to having larger access to a pool of Chinese talent, a majority of positions being offered for foreign managers are senior, meaning that fresh graduates do not have the experience requirements to hold the available jobs.
"Multinational companies aren't necessarily looking to recruit fresh graduates for management positions. They want people who have been working in China for 10 years or more," Leary said.
This is the problem recent CEIBS graduate Eric Seidner is confronting.
The 31-year-old American first came to China during its economic upswing seven years ago.
He said that when it comes to applying for jobs, the language barrier and Chinese human resources practices often give Chinese applicants the upper hand.
"Those who have the biggest advantage from what I've been seeing are the ones who have gone abroad and studied and returned - they have the international experience, the exposure to Western education and are still fluent in the language and culture," he said.
But, just as Chinese graduates who return to China after studying in the West have an advantage, foreign professionals who return home after studying in China have a unique edge.
For James Osterloh, who's enrolled in the two-year MBA program at CEIBS, choosing to go China was a way to distinguish himself in his pre-existing job as project manager at Standard Bank in South Africa.
"Going forward, I will be able to compete better with my peers in the bank by using the China expertise," Osterloh said.
The 31-year-old former British army captain said after he finishes his degree, he will return to the bank to play a bigger role in helping develop ties between China and Africa, a position his previous education and experience would have never allowed him to do.
"It really adds a dynamic to my profile that I didn't have before."
(Source: China Daily)