Doris Yu, journalist

The rising popularity of online master’s programmes around the world is undeniable. Globally, applications to online MBA programmes rose by 43.5% in 2020, while 53% of business schools in Asia Pacific reported increased applications for their full-time MBA programmes, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), which points out that the surge in numbers is in part the result of business schools adopting flexible admissions approaches, including extended deadlines.

It may come as a surprise to learn that the demand for online MBAs is not being driven by those digital natives, the millennial generation. Speaking in a recent interview with the Financial Times, Rahul Choudaha, GMAC’s director of industry insights and research communication, observes that those choosing online MBAs are generally older than the on-campus crowd – half are aged 34 or over. ‘Online is particularly attractive to those who want to hold onto their job but also embrace career progression,’ he says.

Digital delivery

While Hong Kong’s universities have been slow to adopt distance or online learning models they have been catching up quickly since the pandemic started. There is now a greater acceptance of online delivery, in particular for the MBAs that are so sought after in financial centres like Hong Kong, where digital delivery platforms have been rapidly adopted.

Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), for example, says it is the first Asian institution in the Financial Times’ top 25 global MBA institutions to offer an online MBA for working professionals. It launched a two-year part-time digital programme in February. Participants can continue studying during business trips or even after relocating to a different city.

‘In the medium and long term, Hong Kong higher education owns the recipe for success and should benefit first-hand from the Asia MBA boom’

Tam Kar Yan, head of HKUST business school, says: ‘Our digital MBA not only provides an innovative and practical learning platform in today’s challenging times, but also responds in a timely way to the evolving need in the post-pandemic world.’ From a business point of view, of course, MBA programmes are well placed to impart the new skills and knowledge that may be required in post-pandemic workplaces.

Career progression

Francois-Xavier Reodo is one of those on HKUST’s part-time MBA programme. Currently Asia-Pacific head of marketing and communications at Capgemini, he says that one benefit of taking HKUST’s MBA is that he can apply what he learns directly to his work. At the same time, the programme offers networking opportunities with current and future business leaders as well as windows into how different business sectors and functions operate. These factors can translate directly into career advancement, justifying the not insignificant cost and time needed to complete an MBA.

For students with backgrounds in accounting and auditing, an MBA can provide more rounded business training and prepare them for more general managerial and leadership positions. Andrew Yuen, academic director of the MBA programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), says that even for students with accounting qualifications, an MBA can create opportunities to explore new career possibilities in areas such as investment banking, private equity, innovation and technology.

‘In broad strokes, MBAs can shore up a business education, provide exposure to different business sectors, and offer networking opportunities for students that often have strong working experience in managerial roles,’ Yuen explains.

Hongbin Cai, head of the University of Hong Kong Business School, adds: ‘An MBA programme works on various levels as it is a transformative experience, both professionally and personally.’

Recruitment squeeze

The jobs market in Hong Kong has tightened considerably over the past couple of years, with recent social movements in 2019 and the pandemic in 2020 both suppressing economic growth. Reodo says that the combination of business slowdown and a tighter recruitment market has led many professionals, particularly those early in their careers, to shore up their academic credentials and CVs with MBAs.

Local programmes have also benefitted. As many Chinese professionals increasingly look to complete their education in Asia, Hong Kong is a logical alternative.

Compared with their American counterparts, Asian universities are price-competitive and offer an in-depth understanding of local market dynamics and cultural specificities, Reodo says. ‘Hong Kong universities offer a more international flavour for Chinese students aiming at global roles or relocation, and a window to China for international students who want to understand its market,’ he says. ‘In the medium and long term, Hong Kong higher education owns the recipe for success and should benefit first-hand from the Asia MBA boom.’

There has been a ‘moderate but steady increase’ in Hong Kong University’s MBA programme over the past two years despite Covid-19, according to Cai. ‘We have seen good growth in numbers from the Greater Bay Area, and an overall stable number from Hong Kong, as many applicants like to enhance their skillsets and employability during these times. An MBA is able to provide increased credibility, which can be extremely valuable for career progress.’

Not just Hong Kong

Cai is equally optimistic about the future of MBA programmes in Asia, thanks in part to the development of the Greater Bay Area, which will require more and better-qualified talent. ‘We believe the Greater Bay Area is the future engine for growth and is going to create tremendous opportunities for Asian markets,’ he says.

MBA programmes run by universities in Asia have growing brand power. In Hong Kong alone, two such programmes are rated among the best in the world. The Financial Times ranked HKUST’s programme at number 22 in its global league table in 2021, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s at 48.

The need for talent development and a skilled workforce in this region will influence the development of MBAs and other higher education programmes in Hong Kong and the rest of Asia, Cai believes. ‘As Asia continues to become the focal point for business, we will see Asian companies expand their presence into international markets and become global players. Schools in Asia will become more relevant as local and regional knowledge will increasingly be a critical factor in business success.’

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The way forward

‘Hybrid learning should be the future of MBA education,’ says Andrew Yuen of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, although he warns that a different pedagogical approach is required. ‘Educators need to rethink the curriculum and the course design in the hybrid setting to enhance the teaching and learning effectiveness,’ he adds.

He expects MBAs will focus more on technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, and that more schools will adopt new technologies and innovative teaching models, such as virtual learning, flipped classrooms (where students work on projects in class, and watch or listen to lectures on their own out of class) and gamification, as well as strengthening the synergies between the curriculum and complementary learning experiences.

The University of Hong Kong Business School’s Hongbin Cai says that while the growth in online programmes has generated demand for and adoption of education technologies, in-person learning and face-to-face interaction remain crucial. ‘The way forward may be to have a form of blended learning wherein certain aspects of a course could be delivered online, alongside a more focused and effective in-person experience,’ he suggests.