Chinese Business Schools on the World Stage
A confluence of factors has led to the rapid development of business schools in China
Around the globe, business schools often bring leading-edge change initiatives to their home universities, and that’s particularly true in China. All business schools have proximity to the rapidly evolving world of business, which is one reason they are likely to be change leaders. But in China, historical factors also come into play.
Like the country’s macroeconomic environment, China’s business schools started from a low baseline in the 1980s when they reopened after about 30 years’ suspension. Since that time, their development has been remarkably rapid and comprehensive. As these schools achieve regional and even global levels of leadership, they can become models for other higher education institutions (HEIs) in China.
A Brief History
The internationalization of Chinese business schools has taken place over several stages. From the 1980s until China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, these schools overwhelmingly sought to emulate the practices of their Western counterparts. The China-Europe Management Institute (the predecessor to the China Europe International Business School) was founded in Beijing in 1984, bringing MBA study to China for the first time. By the turn of the century, the country’s top business schools in Beijing and Shanghai were establishing joint-venture MBA and EMBA programs with leading Western business schools. These collaborations brought both world-class pedagogical practices and Western business school faculty to China.
In 2003, China’s Ministry of Education (MoE) issued the Regulations of Chinese-Foreign Joint Venture Education, and an explosion of joint ventures followed—many of them with business schools. During the first decade of the 21st century, Chinese business schools also continued digesting what they had learned from their joint venture partners, and they combined that learning with their concurrent domestic development.
Then came the great financial crisis of 2008, which had a tectonic effect everywhere. In China, there was a collapse in manufacturing for export, which had been a primary driver of economic growth for the previous three decades. At the same time, China’s Keynesian response to the crisis—a 1 trillion USD investment in infrastructure—rapidly raised the importance of the domestic economy. These two factors prompted China’s business schools to turn more of their academic attention inward.
That internal focus gained even more importance in 2010, when the MoE promulgated the National Medium- and Long-Term Plan for Educational Reform and Development. Business schools began emphasizing domestic challenges and opportunities with an eye toward achieving the goals of the plan.
As we enter the third decade of this century, two key signs indicate how successfully Chinese business schools have achieved both their internationalization goals and a certain stature within global business education.
First, more Chinese business schools are earning accreditation. Twenty years ago, not a single mainland Chinese business school was accredited by any of the three leading bodies: AACSB International, the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD, which offers EQUIS accreditation), and the Association of MBAs (AMBA). By the summer of 2020, about 40 Chinese business schools had achieved AMBA accreditation, 30 had been accredited by AACSB, and about 20 had earned EQUIS accreditation.
Chinese business schools can achieve international prestige in three ways: by earning accreditation, by placing high in the global rankings, and by expanding their portfolios of international partnership programs.
In addition, both AACSB and EFMD have invited deans from Chinese business schools to sit on their leadership councils. These include deans from the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University and the Antai College of Economics and Management at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU).
Second, joint programs with global higher education institutions are flourishing. For instance, by 2010, nearly half of the HEIs in the U.K. were using some form of collaboration to provide educational opportunities in China. By 2017, the U.K. had become the country with the most joint venture programs in China.
Four factors will continue to drive the growing internationalization of Chinese business schools: government policy, international recognition, financial opportunities, and organic development.
Government policy. MoE initiatives such as the two mentioned above have provided both the impetus and the imperative for the development of Chinese business schools, but others might end up being equally impactful.
For instance, China launched the transnational Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 with the goal of enhancing its economic and political influence by investing in infrastructure projects in Asia, Africa, and Europe. This is expected to result in a huge increase in foreign students enrolling in Chinese universities. And in 2017, the MoE launched the Double First Class initiative, which aims to advance mainland HEIs to the top level among all global HEIs. This initiative also aspires to move specific disciplines to the first level in the global rankings produced by organizations such as the Financial Times and QS Quacquarelli Symonds.
External recognition. Chinese business schools that seek international prestige can achieve it in three ways: by earning accreditation; by placing high in the global rankings, where Chinese schools have been steadily moving up; and by expanding their portfolios of international partnership programs. All three of these avenues require strong and sustained commitment. But such commitment leads to achievement, which increases the appeal of and adherence to strategic initiatives, which in turn creates a virtual cycle of development.
Financial opportunities. Joint programs with Western schools brought attractive new revenue sources to Chinese campuses when they were first launched 20 years ago, because these global programs commanded higher tuition levels. As the economy has evolved, that financial benefit has been less powerful for China’s leading business schools, which are primarily in the eastern regions around Beijing, the Yangtze River delta, and the Guangzhou area.
But for schools farther west, which is not so far up the development curve, joint programs still offer a financial advantage. Schools in western China also view their counterparts in the country’s eastern region as aspirational role models that have achieved enough international stature to charge tuitions closer to global standards.
The top leadership positions at Chinese business schools increasingly have been filled by highly regarded international scholars—individuals who were originally from China and returned to take deanships.
Organic development. Chinese b-schools could not possibly have achieved their rapid increase in internationalization with the organizational structures and leadership they had in place even 15 years ago. Dramatic staffing and organizational changes have both driven and reflected the international growth of the schools.
The international offices on Chinese business school campuses present a striking example of this evolution. At the dawn of the new century, when international offices existed at all, they typically served clerical functions, such as providing translation services. Since then, these offices have taken on mission-critical responsibilities, such as managing strategic international initiatives. Today, they often are headed by faculty members at the vice dean level and encompass more staff with a broader range of skill sets.
Similarly, the top leadership positions at Chinese business schools increasingly have been filled by highly regarded international scholars—individuals who were originally from China and returned to take deanships. Tsinghua, the SJTU Antai College, and 10 other Chinese business schools have appointed dean-level leaders who have come back to China after years abroad. Not only do these returnees understand China better than any foreign dean could, they typically bring with them a decade or more of world-class academic achievement after leading HEIs in the West. Their colleagues who have developed careers solely within China can’t match that experience.
‘Same Bed, Different Dreams’
While Chinese business schools spent several decades learning from their international partners, now might be the time for institutions around the world to learn from Chinese schools. For instance, during the COVID-19 crisis, Chinese business schools were quick to experiment with blended pedagogical solutions that captured the best of the analog and digital educational models. Technology is widely adopted across China, particularly among the country’s youth, so Chinese schools had an advantage over schools in other parts of the world. Some of their practices might provide valuable models for other institutions.
But HEIs that seek to learn from or engage with their Chinese counterparts should keep in mind two important considerations:
First, it is essential to adopt a truly cross-cultural mindset. Not only that, this mindset should be adopted in the broadest sense of the phrase, and it should be applied from inspiration to execution. Cross-cultural partners should not just be aware of, but also in alignment with, the organizational, regulatory, and market factors that drive success in the target market. Research literature is filled with examples of enterprises that failed because they did not adapt their thinking and practices to local environments—or succeeded because they did.
Second, partners must understand each other's goals. One famous Chinese saying is “same bed, different dreams.” This is often applied to joint ventures in which the partners enter into collaborations—both on the ground and on paper—but don’t share the same vision of success. Foreign HEIs that not only understand, but eagerly foster the strategic goals of the Chinese partner will see their joint initiatives flourish.
As Chinese schools achieve more global stature, they will continue to lead change across the campuses of their own universities. And they soon might be positioned to lead change across the entire field of management education.
Haihui (Phil) Wang is director of the international office at Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Antai College of Economics and Management and a doctoral candidate at the University of Bath in the U.K. This article is based on his doctoral research titled “Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Sino-U.K. Higher Education Collaborations in China.”
John D. Van Fleet is the director of corporate globalization for the Antai College of Economics and Management.