Think twice before taking your MBA in Asia

 
Tom Welsh
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EMERGING markets in Asia are churning out MBA graduates in record numbers, and they’re as qualified as they are numerous. TopMBA.com, which measures how companies perceive business schools, saw employer demand for graduates from Indian schools increase by 24 per cent in 2011.

It isn’t an isolated trend – emerging market professionals are taking MBAs because their growing economies need more better-qualified executives. According to TopMBA.com, local firms are currently sucking up much of this supply. But things are changing. Local knowledge is essential for large multinationals to break into new markets, and an elite cadre of Asian-based schools are gradually challenging European and North American rivals in their ability to supply this expertise.

But, these well-documented trends are not a good enough reason for Western professionals to abandon their jobs to catch a flight eastwards. And they certainly don’t represent a declining demand for Western-educated professionals, or the lessening quality of Western-based schools.

ASIA CAN COME TO YOU
The key question students should be asking of business schools is how their MBA will improve their employability. To some extent, which markets are up and which are down is irrelevant – the future rise of certain economies on the back of historical trends is inevitably uncertain, and an MBA physically taken in Asia may not be the best preparation for a career in a multinational.

Steve Seymour, director of MBA programmes at Ashridge Business School argues that “the location of an MBA provider is less important than what and how students learn.” Location can, however, have a bearing on the character of your fellow students. According to Seymour “the more diverse the student cohort, the richer the learning for all.” Schools across the world are desperate to encourage international diversity among their students. It’s seen as a means of teaching – of disseminating cultural quirks, of building networks, and of encouraging more disparate thought about how business can be conducted in different parts of the world.

And a lot of Asia-based schools aren’t particularly good at encouraging this diversity among their students. The top-ranked Indian school, the Institute of Management in Ahmedebad, had only 1 per cent non-Indian students in 2011-12. Somewhat better was the China Europe International Business School, with 40 per cent international students. But compared to the Oxford-based Said Business School, which had a full 93 per cent international cohort in 2011-12, it becomes apparent that many Asian schools are behind the curve when it comes to linking their students with a truly international network.

EMERGING PARTNERSHIPS
It’s not clear what physical relocation to Asia gives a student in terms of cultivating a specific ability to succeed in the region’s expanding economy.

Richard Burns, editor of TopMBA.com, suggests that it’s more worthwhile to consider European schools with “close relations with institutions in emerging markets.” Paris’s Insead, has another campus in Singapore. Cass Business School runs an executive MBA course from its Dubai offshoot.

The point of this outward pollination by Western schools is to give students a better understanding of what Seymour calls the “full political, cultural and technological dimensions of business.” Their importance, therefore, is not about asking MBA students to rote-learn the precise cultural business practices of Vietnam, for example. Rather, schools want to enable students to apply the broader knowledge and skills they’ve learned in the classroom to real-life situations – anywhere.

In fact, Professor Zeger Degraeve, dean of Melbourne Business School in Australia, explains that the emerging market familiarity his school provides isn’t possible without its general educational backdrop. “Graduates can expect to be quite mobile in their careers,” he says, “and an excellent command of general management skills is a prerequisite for any global engagement.” Given this typical post-MBA mobility, there’s little sense in pre-deciding where you’ll be working in the future before you’ve even started your course.

FOLLOWING THE MONEY
Leaving aside future expectations, current evidence shows that current MBA graduates can earn far more in developed economies. TopMBA.com’s Jobs and Salary Trends report suggests that, in 2011, MBA salaries in Asia averaged only $59,600 (£37,690) per annum compared to a Western European average of $93,400. Developed economies are still the best places for MBAs to work.

Even so, one of the major benefits of pursuing an MBA is that it provides business students with the education and skills to widen their career prospects (into different sectors, markets, and job roles), alongside a chance to reassess their career priorities.

It isn’t sensible to pre-decide what you want to do after your MBA before you’ve even started. Asian-based business schools in emerging market economies have their benefits and are coming on in leaps and bounds. But their Western-based rivals haven’t stood still either. It’s not yet time to take the first flight East.

2012 GLOBAL MBA RANKINGS

TOP 10 MBA PROGRAMMES IN THE WORLD

1 Stanford Graduate School of Business

2 Harvard Business School

3 University of Pennsylvania

4 London Business School

5 Columbia Business School

6 Insead (France/Singapore)

7 MIT: Sloan

8 IE Business School (Spain)

9 Iese (Spain)

10 Hong Kong UST Business School

TOP 10 MBA PROGRAMMES IN ASIA PACIFIC

1 Hong Kong UST Business School

2 Indian Institute of Management

3 Indian School of Business

4 National University of Singapore

5 Ceibs China

6 CUHK Business School

7 Nanyang Business School

8 University of Hong Kong

9 Australian School of Business

10 Peking University