When Philippe Rose, a business development manager for Asia Pacific carbon capture and storage at Shell, decided to study for an executive MBA, he did not want to limit himself to a single location.

EMBAs are renowned for their global outlook, and Swiss-raised, Singapore-based Rose picked a programme spanning multiple countries to further expand his horizons. But such internationalism faces increasing challenges today.

Last year, Rose joined the Tsinghua-Insead EMBA, taught across Insead’s three campuses in Singapore, Fontainebleau near Paris and Abu Dhabi, as well as Tsinghua University’s campus in Beijing.

One driving force behind his choice was a desire to bolster his understanding of renewables and make a transition from the conventional oil and gas industry. The degree’s China component was important because the republic is a key player in renewables, dominating the supply of materials crucial for the energy transition. “If you’re in the renewable power industry and involved in the supply chain, pretty much all routes lead to China,” Rose says.

He intended to enrol on the EMBA in 2021, but pandemic restrictions made it complicated to travel, so he deferred entry until 2022, taking some hybrid courses initially that blend online and in-person teaching. His experience underlines the challenges that business schools face in delivering EMBAs around the world at a time of diminished international connection, co-operation and free movement. From Covid and Brexit to fallout from Russia’s war on Ukraine and Chinese-western geopolitical tensions, this has been described by some observers as “deglobalisation”.

Firefighters prepare to conduct disinfection at the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on April 3, 2020
Deglobalisation drivers: Wuhan at the start of the Covid pandemic, in March 2020 © Getty Images
A Ukrainian serviceman helps evacuees gathered under a destroyed bridge, as they flee the city of Irpin
Evacuees in Ukraine in March 2022, following the Russian invasion © Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

The success of many highly ranked EMBAs — often collaborative programmes with global partnerships — is attributed to their ability to share unique expertise between institutions and provide students with insights into different cultures, business and political environments.

But is deglobalisation starting to challenge the value and internationalist proposition of these degrees? Business schools insist not, claiming that it has actually increased the relevance of EMBAs by preparing participants to navigate geopolitical challenges, prompting many providers to incorporate fresh content on the subject.

“For a long time, we took it for granted that whatever benefits business would be accepted by governments, that innovations would always be welcomed,” says Professor Xiaowei Rose Luo, academic director of the Tsinghua-Insead dual degree. “Now, we are training participants to better anticipate the political consequences of business strategies.”

Professor Gonzalo Freixes, the associate dean for fully-employed and EMBA programmes at UCLA Anderson School of Management in Los Angeles, also robustly defends programmes delivered by schools with global partnerships. “Despite the challenges of globalisation, I think there is still tremendous value in helping educate and advance the global leaders of tomorrow,” he says. “Schools have a responsibility to provide a global perspective, but to do so responsibly.”

Prof Freixes accepts that globalisation has its potential downsides, such as social disruption, but stresses the integration of environmental, social and governance (ESG) content into the UCLA-NUS EMBA, delivered jointly with Singapore’s NUS Business School. “We not only talk about how to be successful in global business, but also the implications for society and the environment,” he says.

Nevertheless, business schools are balancing the desire for a diverse, globally oriented education with the potential constraints imposed by deglobalisation. EMBA programmes with international partnerships are grappling with logistical challenges in today’s geopolitical landscape.

Two staff members lower the union flag from a pole. Beside them is a wall of flag poles
The union flag is lowered at the European Council building in 2020 © Olivier Hoslet/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Many international components were suspended, moved online or relocated during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, restricting global mobility. For example, the UCLA-NUS EMBA was placed on hold in the 2020-21 academic year and, even after it reopened a year later, the first two modules were shifted online because of Covid restrictions. The programme resumed in-person instruction in February 2022, but is still 25 per cent online. “This has been very convenient for our students,” says Prof Freixes.

However, other schools find that many participants have little appetite for online classes, favouring opportunities to share perspectives and build networks on campus. “They really treasure the in-person experience,” says Kai-Lung Hui, the academic director of the Kellogg-HKUST EMBA programme, delivered by Kellogg School of Management in the US and the HKUST Business School in Hong Kong.

As Covid restrictions have eased, this has allowed for freer global movement, but some business schools have adapted their strategies. The Trium Global EMBA — jointly delivered by HEC Paris, New York University’s Stern School of Business and the London School of Economics — has yet to reinstate its China module, which was suspended during the pandemic.

FT Executive MBA Ranking

Read the EMBA ranking and report

“We believe there will be less business with China in the years to come, and therefore we decided to explore other interesting locations,” says Laurence Lehmann-Ortega, HEC’s academic director for the Trium programme. The school has introduced Singapore as an alternative location for this year and next, and South Korea from 2025 onwards.

EMBA programmes have had to navigate wider geopolitical challenges. France’s Neoma Business School has suspended modules in Iran for its Global EMBA, given the current social unrest. Yet, demand for the course remains strong, up 40 per cent from the previous year.

“Our participants are looking for the edge to operate in an uncertain world,” says Sami Attaoui, the academic director of the Global EMBA. He points to the potential expansion of the Brics emerging market bloc: “This is something we need to help participants understand and navigate through all these changes.”

For Philippe Rose, the value of his Tsinghua-Insead EMBA lies in gaining a comprehensive overview of the myriad factors that influence the business landscape. “The space I’m in [renewables] is recognised as being at the extreme end of complexity. So the EMBA is not about having all the answers, it’s more about giving a road map and the confidence to ask the right questions.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article