Chunhao Quan in a suit
A promotion in his work in IT in Shanghai prompted Chunhao Quan to study for an MBA at Alliance Manchester Business School © Emma Phillipson, for the FT

For Chunhao Quan, from China, studying for an MBA in the UK is “a gate to the international business world”.

Promotion to a team leader position in his work as an analyst for IT consulting firm iSoftStone in Shanghai convinced Quan that he must hone his management skills and he applied to Alliance Manchester Business School.

Studying for an MBA is demanding and doing so 6,000 miles from home is tougher still. But enrolling for an MBA abroad has been an important part of many Chinese professionals’ career plans for the best part of two decades. Students have become one of China’s biggest exports, and each year, more than 700,000 Chinese people are estimated to leave their country to study abroad, across all subjects.

“The biggest challenge [in] coming to the UK was leaving my family behind,” says Quan, who started his MBA last September. “I’ve also struggled getting into a new routine and becoming a full-time student again, leaving full-time employment and coming out of my comfort zone. But I really enjoy the cultural diversity of this vibrant country.”

Despite the longstanding allure of abroad, Covid-19 and the Chinese government’s strict lockdowns during the pandemic have thwarted many potential students’ ambitions. Exams such as the English language IELTS tests and the GRE exams required by many graduate schools have been suspended in China for much of that time.

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The extracurricular activities that help to bolster MBA applications, such as sports competitions or volunteering work, were also postponed or cancelled. For students living outside metropolises such as Shanghai or Beijing, the intermittent lockdown of smaller cities often made it almost impossible to find and take flights abroad.

Students have been among those protesting against their government’s Covid-19 policies — protests that prompted the Chinese Communist party to relax some of its restrictions. China’s borders were sealed to international students at the start of 2020 but, since August 2022, visa policies have been eased to allow international students to return to Chinese university and business school campuses.

However, health fears and tense diplomatic relations between China and the west are also causing some Chinese students to rethink their international study plans. In its latest “prospective student” survey, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), the business school entry exam administrator, found that among east and south-east Asian candidates, preference to study abroad declined from 92 per cent to 87 per cent during the pandemic.

Kiddler Chen, regional director for Greater China at GMAC, says, “Travel restrictions and economic disruptions, coupled with geopolitical tensions and the growth of high-quality business school programmes in China and the Asia-Pacific region, are likely to have contributed to this trend.”

GMAC’s recent “application trends” survey of graduate business and management programmes at Chinese business schools found that 59 per cent of courses saw an increase in applications in 2022, suggesting that Chinese candidates may increasingly be opting to study domestically, or within the east Asian region. The number of Chinese students applying to Hong Kong universities has grown by as much as 40 per cent.

A sluggish economy may also be deterring some Chinese students from considering expensive MBAs abroad. “Candidates in China are increasingly evaluating the return on investment that studying abroad can bring,” says Chen. “The cost of studying abroad in the destination country is becoming an even more important deciding factor than before, especially when candidates are choosing between returning home after graduation or starting their career in the destination country.”

The US, UK, Australia and Canada have typically been the most popular international destinations for Chinese MBA students. But the latest trends are causing business schools to consider whether their programmes, including the MBA, have become too dependent on income from Chinese students. China is the biggest source of foreign students for the US, representing almost a third of the total for all subjects. However, the number of US student visas issued to Chinese nationals has fallen by more than 50 per cent since before the pandemic.

Similarly, the number of Chinese students at UK universities rose by 63 per cent in the five years before the pandemic. But the number of study visas issued to Chinese students has also fallen a little since 2019, by 2 per cent.

“Even before the pandemic, we had been looking to attract more Chinese students on to our full-time MBA,” says Chris Healy, head of MBA marketing and recruitment at Alliance Manchester Business School. “We’re back attending in-country events around the world, but it’s still extremely difficult to do in-person events in China, so we are still taking part in online events in the region. We’re eager to go back to doing in-country work when restrictions hopefully ease in 2023.”

In Australia, visas for students from China have returned almost to previous levels, but business schools are nonetheless trying to diversify. “We’re focused on growing enrolments in other areas, such as India, Indonesia, Nepal and South America,” says Nick Wailes, director of the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of New South Wales, where less than 10 per cent of the full-time MBA cohort is Chinese. “But the Chinese market is remarkably robust and looks like it will continue to grow for another 15 or 20 years.

“There’s a really strong desire by middle-class families in China for good, English language education,” he says. “And the predominance of one-child families means they are willing to save a long time for their education.”

Indeed, Chinese demand for some of the highest ranked MBA programmes has rebounded strongly. Compared with last year, Iese Business School in Barcelona has seen a 15 per cent increase in applications from mainland China for its MBA and a 56 per cent increase in the enrolment of students from China for its MBA class of 2024. Likewise, HEC Paris reports applications from Chinese candidates have increased 20 per cent in the past year, returning to pre-pandemic levels.

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