After a decade of stellar growth, China’s executive MBA programmes are under pressure. Recent government regulations target the courses which many in authority have dismissed as networking clubs offering little in the way of education.
After their introduction about 15 years ago, the number of EMBA programmes has ballooned to more than 60. Until recently they have been taking some 8,000 students a year, catering to demand from founders of private companies, many of whom had little formal business education.
The part-time programmes, which are designed so that managers can complete them without having to leave their jobs, have been lucrative for colleges, which have rushed to open business schools. Fees for a two-year, part-time course at a top institution can reach over Rmb600,000 ($90,600).
As well as catering for entrepreneurs, the courses have been attended by government officials — who account for 5-10 per cent of students in most EMBA programmes, and reaching 40 per cent in some others, according to Chinese media estimates, suggesting they have been important forums for political and business elites looking to build relationships.
Among those who have taken EMBA degrees are senior officials such as Huang Qifan, former mayor of Chongqing, and Du Jiahao, the top Communist party official in Hunan Province, who both graduated from the Shanghai-based China Europe International Business School (Ceibs).
However, EMBAs have become a target for the anti-corruption campaign championed by Xi Jinping, China’s President, when he came to power in 2012. “EMBA programmes in China have been described as rich men’s clubs, and some institutions offering them have been criticised for alleged corrupt practices,” the state-run China Daily reported last year.
The Chinese government in 2014 barred “leading cadres” within the Communist party, the government and state-owned enterprises from signing up for costly business training unless they had official approval and agreed to pay fees themselves. Those already on such programmes were told to quit immediately — with the institutions forced to refund their fees.
The screws were further tightened last summer when China’s education ministry ordered all students to pass national entrance exams before enrolling in domestic EMBAs.
The move, which the ministry said was aimed at raising standards, was accompanied by stricter monitoring of class attendance and performance, as well as the introduction of interviews to assess “political awareness” — a Communist party euphemism for supporting government policy.
The regulations have drastically reduced student enrolment at the lower-level schools. One school dean who did not want to be named says that the number who can be admitted has dropped from 10,000 last year to only 2,500 in this year’s intake.
The 2014 ban “accounted for about 30 per cent of our students. The next kick was the  exam regulations,” Zou Yufeng, head of EMBA projects at Renmin University of China School of Business, told a forum in April, according to state media. “I estimate that of all 64 programmes, perhaps only 15 are performing decently,” he added.
The pool of company managers without qualifications has dried up, according to Mr Zou. “Take a look at company executives. Most already have master’s degrees . . . I don’t think the future can be like the past, with every school taking on so many students.”
Mike Bastin, senior lecturer at the University of Southampton in the UK and visiting professor at China’s University of International Business and Economics, says the tighter regulation has done little to improve standards at the lower-level schools. “EMBA programmes taking place outside the top Chinese business schools are often little more than party networking opportunities with no or little serious attempt at anything like the academic rigour required,” he says.
Some are expecting a cull of lower-ranked programmes. “I would expect to see a shake out of some of the mid-tier programmes which have sprouted up during the last decade of EMBA programme expansion in China,” says Eric Skuse, associate director of research at Emerging Strategy, a US consultancy.
“After the growth-stage expansion of China’s EMBA market in the last decade, there is likely to be a natural attrition of some of those programmes — particularly the Sino-Western joint-ventures among the mid-tier institutions — as the market matures,” he adds.
One variety of EMBA course which has escaped the crackdown are those jointly run with foreign universities, as they are exempted from some of the regulations on Chinese schools. Several of these appear in the FT ranking of the top EMBA courses in the world.
The EMBA programme run at Shanghai’s Fudan University jointly with Washington University’s Olin Business School in the US attracts about 90 per cent of its intake from staff at multinationals with a presence in China. Most are Chinese and many already have overseas degrees. Foreign programmes are generally taught in English, making them inaccessible to many Chinese entrepreneurs. However, the programme faces new challenges, as China’s economic slowdown has hit multinationals who have been the lifeblood of EMBA programmes in the country.
Wang Xiaozu, a professor at Fudan who teaches on both the English language and Chinese language EMBAs, says that compared to the Chinese course, the joint programme is much more demanding academically. For Chinese courses “socialising is a bigger motivation for students”.
When asked about the declining numbers from state-owned enterprises, he says: “We still have SOE people, they can still come if they pay for themselves, but they are a lot fewer.”