Truly Asia: The challenges of attracting US and Europe applicants to Asian b-schools

In a bid to harness strength in numbers, four well-known Asian b-schools joined hands formally this month to showcase the best of Asia to the global academic world. Calling themselves the ‘ivy-league of Asia’, the four schools aim to use the coalition to attract more number of applicants from the Western world to study in their campuses.

Titled ‘Top Asia B-schools’, the coalition comprises the HKUST Business School in Hong Kong, the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai, the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad, India, and Nanyang Business School at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. It has a website, a logo and a joint-tour plan. Admission teams of the four schools are traveling jointly to Europe and the Americas in September to sell the ‘study in Asia’ proposition to prospective applicants in the USA, Canada and Europe.

According to the colleges, Asia is the place to be with 139 of the Fortune Global 500 now based in Asia, and global businesses taking a keen interest in the Asian markets. Their need to come together was to harness this great ‘Asian’ interest. How this would translate into an academic market will depend on how the ‘Top Asia B-schools’ coalition manages to take on competing b-schools in US and Europe. Why would an American MBA applicant head to Asia when he gets some of the best MBA education back home?

The four colleges in the coalition have an answer to that. According to Sherring Ng, HKUST’s Head of Marketing and MBA Admissions, it is the momentum of growth in Asia which has attracted businesses everywhere to explore its booming markets. Exposure to and understanding of Asia’s business is critical for success. Quality business education is important to business executives who want to shape their future here. Ng adds that Hong Kong has been the worlds freest economy for 15 years and has long been at the junction of East and West. “Its rule of law and position as the gateway to China make it a natural choice of headquarters for multinational firms and home to top decision makers in business. It is the place to be for aspiring executives to make the right connections and learn business where business is.”tour

Nicanor Lazaro Soriano, Director of Marketing and Admissions at the Nanyang MBA, Nanyang Business School feels that Asia is where the global markets are shifting their influence. “Thus Singapore, the strategic hub of Asia, offers more. China, India, SouthEast Asia and Asia-Pacific are accessible from here, and it is also home to more than 5,000 multi-national companies (MNCs).” In defence of Singapore, Soriano says that country is a global city — a microcosm of the world. You can find almost all the cultures here, in among the worlds most livable cities, not to mention, the worlds most competitive nation as well. He claims that more than 27 countries are represented in the current MBA class at Nanyang.

ISB Hyderabad’s Senior Director of Admissions and Financial Aid VK Menon agrees that Asia’s economy is rising, but is also honest enough to add that the coalition was thought of since the economics worked better if four schools came together for the cause, than work individually. It is costly for one school to build a brand internationally. Four schools can do it better and also be more visible in many more towns, he says.

Soriano suggested that the four schools have limited marketing dollars but in the coalition everybody’s resources are being pulled together to garner maximum benefit. Another of the coalition’s propositions is the fact that an MBA in Asia or India will be far less costly compared to that in the US and the students will have a choice of studying here and going back home to work.

One understands why applicants might be attracted to China — it being the world’s prime manufacturing hub, or Singapore with its 5,000-MNC base or even Hong Kong for its being a global financial hub. But what proposition is ISB putting forward for Americans and Europeans to study in India?

There is a lot of interest in India. Among Asian countries, China and India markets hold the highest interest. India has been long known as a goods and services country. It is time for us to show that India is strong on education as well. Students coming from established markets will also be able to understand India’s markets well,” says Mr Menon.

Ironically, India’s share of international students is nothing worth shouting about. ISB has, in a batch of 550, only 29 international students, compared to HKUST which for the 2009 intake, has 25 distinct non-local nationalities comprising 92% of the 113-strong class. Or with Nanyang Business School which typically has more than 80% of its batch made up of international students. CEIBS flaunts a figure of 37% for its international students. While these schools do have international students, most of them come from nearby countries.

Mr Menon acknowledges that the relatively lesser percentage of international students in his school but believes that if basic issues were tackled, this figure could drastically go up. “Take an issue like international students being able to bring their families to India. If we can make sure that this process is smooth, our numbers will increase.”

“Besides, ISB faculty is drawn from many markets and is not geographically limited. ISB has close to 45 residential faculty involved in research. Lots to offer in real terms,” assures Mr Menon.

For all the four schools however, attracting the international student is only half the work done. To integrate these students within the academic and cultural rigors of the four colleges will be another challenge. All four agree that with exceptions, Asian and western students do perform different academically. Says Professor Roger Chen of HKUST Business School, “Western students are more vocal and willing to share their thoughts compared to Asian counterparts who are more reserved, careful and thoughtful. Asian students think thoroughly before talking. Asian students are also more detail-oriented. They are more sensitive to small differences and are more likely to ask questions that are very specific or precise. Western students, however, are usually content with a general view or understanding of a particular concept or idea.”

Professor Chen adds that for Asian students, it is a matter of saving face or keeping a good image as they are more likely to begin speaking only after others have spoken and are generally less aggressive. Western students, on the other hand are more willing to jump into a debate and are not afraid to voice their opinion or challenge another’s opinion.

Soriano thinks the first biggest advantage the western students hold over Asian students is the knowledge and use of English which is their language of instruction.

Menon states that in any class, there is a variety of student types anyway and there should be no problems on the social-cultural front. “Since all the four schools already have international students, they are prepared to take on the socio-cultural challenges,” he says.

The upcoming admission season will tell how North American and European MBA b-schools respond to this new push by Asian schools to grab their audience as well as their dollars and euros. For the ‘Top Asia B-schools’ coalition, the work towards their goal has begun full steam. Joint promotions have been discussed, the logo finalised, brochures prepared and advertising minds have come together to begin the blitzkrieg. Apparently applicant enquiries have already started but it may be a long way to go till the first student signs up. Though, this is how Nanyang’s Soriano would like to understand the future of this coalition. “The US, UK and Australia have their own version of Ivy league institutions. The ‘Top Asia B-Schools’ is the ivy league of Asia.”

No personnel from CEIBS China was available for comment during the story’s research.

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