The Learning Giant: Biz Ed in China

Written on April 11, 2016 by Santiago Iñiguez in IE Business School, IE University


By Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Dean of IE Business School and President of IE University.

Ying and yang, the two elemental forces, seemingly opposed, but complementary, in balance and harmony, which are to be found in everything, even the world of business, is one of the most distinctive ideas of Chinese philosophy. The application of this duality has provided China with a powerful stabilizing influence, while at the same time allowing for rapid change throughout society, including business schools. The seeming dichotomy between  the supposed opponents Ying and Tang is reflected in many different facets of Chinese thought, like the respect for tradition combined with a marked focus on the future.

Some years ago I attended the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the Renmin University Business School in Beijing. The colourful ceremony was held at the campus auditorium, bolstered by an impressive multimedia display and a presentational style worthy of the Oscars. As the spectacle unfolded, two particular aspects of the event struck me.

First, the way the ceremony reflected the profound Chinese respect for tradition, a tribute to the university’s older teaching staff, now retired, who had mentored and trained successive generations of educators. During its early years, the school was heavily influenced by the economics and engineering institutions of what was then the Soviet Union, the political and cultural ally in those days, something that the organizers of the event had no qualms in recognizing. One of the legacies of the quinquennial plans of that age is the long term planning embedded in many of their management practices.

This anecdote also shows an essential aspect to understanding China’s development towards a market economy, and in the future towards democracy as we understand it: China’s social and institutional development has come about gradually, over the long term, and is built on traditions and reference points dating back thousands of years. Social and political transformation in China will probably take place slowly and gradually, only noticeable from the angle of an historian.

Furthermore, the country’s social and cultural transition is based on continuity; it incorporates the past, regardless of whether they are seen at this point as good or bad periods. This sense of respect for tradition makes a vital contribution to institutional continuity and in the reverence shown toward the elderly, in this case, the university’s veteran teachers.

The second thing that struck me, and this may seem to contradict what I have just said, was the university’s openness toward new currents of management theory, its looking out to the global market, the sharp pragmatism of its ideas, reflected in the announcement of new initiatives by its business school, the launching of new programs, and its rapidly growing internationalization.

There are over 234 government recognized educational institutions offering MBAs in China, attended by an estimated 80,000 students. Almost all MBA programs are taught by schools belonging to public universities, and are therefore subject to regulation regarding their numbers and objectives. That said, there are two business schools that stand out, and which are not part of the public education system: CEIBS (China Europe International Business School), a joint venture set up in 1994 between the European Commission and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, backed by the EFMD (the European Foundation for Management Development). CEIBS has since become the benchmark for executive education in Asia. The other is the Cheung KongGraduate School of Business, founded in 2002 in the Chinese capital, and supported by business magnate Li Ka Shing. The school is highly respected by China’s business community.

There are three main management education hubs in China: Beijing and Shanghai, in continental China, and Hong Kong, which has a different educational statute. However, it is expected that many new centers will flourish in the near future along the growth of an increasing number of megacities. According to the rankings and league tables, Beijing’s most international business schools, all part of the state system, are Guanghua School of Management,Beijing University’s Beijing International MBA, or BiMBA, TsinghuaUniversity, Renmin University Business School, and Tongi University. In Shanghai, the most important within the state system are the Antai Business School at Jiao Tong University and Fudan University Business School. Hong Kong, which has the greatest number of schools with an international outlook, has HKUST (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology), the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the University of Hong Kong, City University of Hong Kong, and Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

Attending some conferences with the deans of business schools in China, I have always been struck by their growing awareness of international competition, the need to develop a presence outside their country, and the rapid adaptation of these schools to the new global business environment. At the same time, I have often highlighted the need to introduce changes that will allow China’s business schools, particularly those in Beijing and Shanghai, to project themselves more effectively at an international level. I would point to four main areas:

Schools need greater autonomy to develop the strategies appropriate to their needs. At present, schools that are part of universities have very limited room to maneuver, with little say over their curriculum, number of pupils, and degree programs, which are highly regulated.

Schools need to increase the quality and outreach of research. At the same time, research needs to reflect local and domestic issues, related to Chinese management styles: to date, most contributions on the subject has come from the West. Chinese universities seem aware of this challenge, and in recent years have made an effort to attract talent, recruiting teachers born in China but who left to work in the United States and Europe. In fact, demand is such that Chinese teachers are increasingly hard to find.

Standards of business education vary sharply. On the one hand there are the elite institutions mentioned above, which enjoy domestic and international recognition, while “the great majority of the nation’s B-schools are of poor quality”[1] and where teaching staff fall below the standards of the majority of schools in the West. Here, leading accreditation agencies such as AACSB and EFMD may play a key role in identifying and exposing the best Chinese best schools to the rest of the world.

China’s business schools need to meet the growing demand for online courses, both in terms of degree programs and lifelong learning. Distance and on-line learning do not seem to enjoy the same status as in the West, and have not been developed to anything approaching their full potential. A recent report states that although it is expected that online education will take off in the future still there is “unimpressive continuation of doubts amongst members of the public as to the worth of diplomas from online institutions” [2].

Management education in China would also benefit significantly from opening up the market to foreign players. As is well known, foreign schools wanting to operate in China must do so in partnership with local institutions. These partnerships have not always met Western schools’ expectations, which are keen to establish a bigger presence in what is now the world’s biggest, and fastest-growing market. As Alison Damast noted inBusinessWeek: “Foreign businesses in China often start out with an unbridled enthusiasm that is gradually tempered by bureaucracy, difficult local partners, and fewer customers than the size of its population—1.3 billion at last count, and growing wealthier—would suggest”. [3]

From my conversations with deans from Western schools that have looked at or entered into joint ventures with their Chinese counterparts, most say that their initial enthusiasm at entering what seems like a limitless market, and one where stakeholders are keen to work with them is soon tempered by the complex bureaucratic procedures they come up against, the strong sense of educational sovereignty shared by most Chinese officials, and the cultural difficulties involved in adapting to local markets. In contrast, many Western schools are seen by the Chinese as looking for quick returns, and unprepared to make the kind of long-term commitment required in China to succeed.

It is not to say that there have not been any success stories, among them that ofNottingham Business School, which has opened a campus in the Zhejiang province, a hotbed of high-tech start up companies. A significant number of Western business schools looking to get into the Chinese market have instead opted to enter through Hong Kong, which has both a significant number of important business schools of its own, as well as a more flexible approach to dealing with international players.

However, the anticorruption laws enacted by the government two years ago, may affect the demand for business programs in China as well the evolution of joint between Chinese and foreign business schools. At the same time, the present situation may serve as an opportunity to develop less costly programs, which are more suited to the needs of Chinese managers and companies.

Something else that has caught my attention in recent years is Chinese business schools growing interest in sustainability and corporate social responsibility, along with values rooted in their own culture such as Confucianism, to the extent that some have even included a commitment to them within their mission statements. Indeed, it is worth revisiting Confucius, a thinker for all seasons. His ideas may help us bring the West and the East closer.


This article has been adapted from my book “The Learning Curve: How Business Schools Are reinventing Education” (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)

[1] ‘China’s B-School Boom Meet the new managerial class in the making’,Businessweek, 9/01/ 2006

[2] S. Maple: “The growth of on-line education in China”; Ezinearticles,


[3] A. Damast: “China: Why Western B-Schools Are Leaving Red tape, difficult partners, and weak demand have Western universities closing executive MBA programs”; Businessweek, 15/5/2008. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/08_21/b4085056706207.htm?chan=top+news_top+news+index_news+%2B+analysis


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