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With tuition and living expenses considerably lower than their North American equivalents, these business schools in China are making a strong case for an affordable top-tier MBA.

Huchen Lu/Getty Images/iStockphoto

It's been a little more than 100 years since the Harvard Business School began its MBA program – are we set to see a comparable Asian champion in the next 10? The signs are encouraging.

In 2012, five Chinese schools are in the top 100 business school rankings of the Financial Times, up from only one school five years ago.

To compete on the world stage these schools face the challenge of attracting top talent from outside their local market, and Canadian demand for the MBA in China is booming.

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Score reports for the GMAT, the Graduate Management Admissions Test used by business schools as part of the candidate selection process, indicate that in the past five years the number of Canadian applicants sending their test scores to schools in China has increased by an impressive 73.5 per cent.

At the Beijing International MBA (BiMBA), a joint venture between Peking University and Belgium's Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School, the percentage of Western students studying in their full-time MBA program has increased from 5 per cent in 2006 to 35 per cent in 2011.

For the BiMBA dean, Zhuang Yang, the dramatic increase in demand from North America and elsewhere has been driven by a very practical career ambition.

"In China there is a limited managerial talent pool who understand global markets and mindsets, so our international students who both understand the local business culture and can speak Chinese are in very high demand. In addition to multinationals looking to build their market presence here, there are also more and more Chinese companies looking to expand overseas but don't know where to start. Our international students can act as consultants for their expansion plans," Dr. Zhuang says.

Given this level of demand, it is perhaps not surprising that competition for graduating students is fierce. The 50 graduates in the BiMBA program were offered positions by more than 250 companies across a wide range of industries, including JP Morgan, AIG, Apple and Louis Vuitton.

With tuition and living expenses in these programs considerably lower than their North American equivalents, these schools are clearly opening career doors and making a strong case for an affordable top-tier MBA with an excellent return on investment. Graduates at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) this year reported a three-year increase of 160 per cent over their pre-MBA salary, while 94 per cent of recent China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) graduates had found a job within three months of graduating.

Securing a place in one of these business schools will not be easy. With six to 10 applicants for every place on the MBA program, the top schools in China are matching the admissions selectivity of Harvard and Wharton, admittedly with considerably smaller class sizes.

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If the GMAT is any indication of student smarts, these schools can claim to attract a bright talent pool. Though not quite on a par with the likes of Stanford GSB, whose average GMAT score this year is 731, schools in China are edging closer, with a GMAT average around the 700 mark.

But for Gaven Chen, a University of British Columbia undergraduate now studying at BiMBA, the admissions process was about more than standardized test scores.

"I wanted an MBA program that made a real effort to get to know me through the interview process. After all, having a quality student body is key to a great MBA experience. I felt BiMBA wanted to know how I can add value to the class through my personal experience, and not just grades and my GMAT score."

As a manager at his family's textile manufacturing business, Mr. Chen's decision to pursue his MBA in Beijing was influenced by China's phenomenal economic rise, but it also gave him the chance to expand his personal and professional horizons in the country's political capital.

"Having an MBA degree and professional networks in China will better help our family business to grow in this exciting market." As a Chinese Canadian, Mr. Chen already has insight into the local culture and traditions, but the MBA helped take that understanding to a new level of business reality.

"I have lived and studied in Canada for most of my life, so Peking University's BiMBA was the chance to broaden my perspectives and learn about China's economic development from the people who actually set the rules and regulations."

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The direct connection to government is not lost on Dr. Zhuang. "The government plays a critical role, both for state-owned enterprises and for multinational firms. So you have to keep track of what is happening and the decisions being made. Many of our faculty members work closely with government and industry across the country," he explains, "which allows them to bring to the classroom a clear understanding of the key challenges faced by businesses here."

So what are the areas in which the business schools of China still have work to do? One area is faculty, and the ability to attract the world's leading thinkers and best teachers.

The recent move to CEIBS in Shanghai by John Quelch, formerly the dean at the London Business School and professor at the Harvard Business School, might be a sign of things to come.

The likes of Peking University have addressed the scarcity of teaching staff by partnering, rather than competing, with Western counterparts, and count more than 40 faculty from North America and Europe; the University of Tsinghua hosts an executive MBA program that draws on faculty from HEC Paris; and CUHK has joined with schools in the Americas and Europe to develop the multi-country OneMBA.

But those that reject the partnership path may find they need a radical change of approach if they are to win the war for faculty talent. "Some schools in Asia are just not as flexible as their counterparts in the U.S. or Europe," says CUHK's administrative director, Lawrence Chan Hang-kin. "And they may have to adjust their management and personnel structures to hire the right faculty."

Finally there is the power and influence of the alumni networks, with the fundraising abilities and career opportunities that are the lifeblood of the top schools in the West. The C-suites of the Silicon Valley and the financial markets of New York and London are filled with their MBA graduates. Though the youthful Chinese schools have a long way to go to match such numbers and influence, they are already starting to fill the boardrooms of state-owned enterprises and high-growth start-ups.

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And there is no shortage of ambition. As the balance of world economic power continues to shift east, there is also the question whether the balance of world intellectual power may also be shifting. And whether the future business school of choice may not be in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver but in Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong.

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