The recent headlines in the business media about China are telling:
Xi Jinping’s Capitalist Smackdown Sparks a $1 Trillion Reckoning: After 40 years of allowing the market to play an expanding role in driving prosperity, China’s leaders have remembered something important — they’re Communists — Bloomberg
Xi Jinping Aims to Rein In Chinese Capitalism, Hew to Mao’s Socialist Vision: Going beyond curbing tech giants, he wants the Communist Party to steer flows of money and set tighter limits on profit-making — The Wall Street Journal
China’s Communist Authorities Are Tightening Their Grip On the Private Sector — The Economist
But the director of the country’s premier MBA program sees no shortage of business opportunities for young professionals in China nor does he see a decline in the demand for the quintessential MBA experience in the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing economy.
‘I DON’T THINK CHINA HAS TURNED ANTI-CAPITALIST’
“I don’t think China has turned anti-capitalist,” says Shameen Prashantham, associate dean and director of the full-time MBA program at (CEIBS) China Europe International Business School. “One of the interesting concepts I came across is yin and yang, contradictory notions that are held at the same time. One of the important characteristics of yin yang is that the balance will always change. When you hear anti-capitalist rhetoric, it is more about course correction and it depends on where you are. In Shanghai, I don’t feel an anti-capitalist push at all. In Shenzhen, the entrepreneurial fever is as hot now as ever.”
Born and raised in Southern India and having spent much of his adult life in Scotland, the 47-year-old Prashantham has now spent ten years in China as a business school professor. Four of those years were in Ningbo, one of China’s most entrepreneurial cities, with Nottingham University Business School China (NUBS China). With expertise in international business and a focus on partnerships struck by big companies with startups, he joined CEIBS in 2015. Prashantham was then asked to take over the job of running the full-time MBA program in 2020.
It was not an easy decision. He had imagined becoming the director of an academic center when the job unexpectedly came open when Juan Fernandez stepped down from the role after a three-year stint. “When it came up, I began to ask myself if this is an area I can contribute to?,” he says. “CEIBS is such a big school and the majority of the programs are in Chinese. But we have these two English programs that matter greatly for reputation: our full-time MBA and our Global EMBA. I thought maybe this is something I can be useful to the school in.”
WELCOMING MBA COHORTS IN TWO CITIES: SHANGHAI AND ZURICH
What he didn’t bargain for was the prolonged impact of the pandemic. “If that had been in the job description, I probably wouldn’t have said yes,” he concedes. Nonetheless, when he welcomed his first cohort of MBAs in October of last year, it was not only virtual; it was in two different locations, the main campus in Shanghai for students already in the country and the school’s satellite campus in Zurich for incoming students who could not get into the country due to China’s border restrictions.
With roughly a third of the MBAs from outside China, the pandemic posed a new challenge to the program. “Since the border closed in March of 2020 and has since selectively reopened, student visas haven’t been issued,” explains Prashantham. “We were really in a quandary. In the summer of 2020, we gave the 40 international students who signed up for the MBA the option to begin the program from our Zurich campus. Five faculty members stuck outside China were sent to Zurich as well. The hope was that the border would quickly reopen and we would be able to bring these students to China by the end of December but then there was an outbreak in Europe and so we had to continue in a hybrid model for those students.”
That twin-city approach was not carried forward for this newest class of MBAs who began the program two months ago. The class of 120 students, roughly 60 short of the more typical 180-sized cohorts due to the border lockdown, achieved gender parity, with exactly half the class composed of women, and with a surprisingly high 38% of the students from outside China. The school achieved that level by recruiting international students who already were in China mainly on work visas.
WHAT HASN’T CHANGED AND WON’T IS THE MBA’S FOCUS ON CHINA
The hybrid model meant that some classes in Shanghai were broadcast from Zurich, while some classes in Zurich were piped into the classrooms in China. For the Zurich students, CEIBS has created a portfolio of virtual internships with Chinese companies, along with a new China Experience webinar series with guest speakers that can be Zoomed into Switzerland. When the border restrictions ease and student visas are granted again, the school expects to get back to enrolling about 180 students a year in the full-time MBA program.
What hasn’t changed is the program’s laser focus on the China experience. “We have certain electives and this huge case center which produces the largest number of Chinese cases in the world,” he says. “Digital China is one of many unique electives here. We are trying to increase the portfolio of Chinese-based modules (immersions). I will take students later this month on a module that explores the globalization of Chinese companies. A German colleague is doing a Shanghai-based elective on European companies in China and how they cope with local competition and the rise of digital companies in China.”
Another major advantage of the program is the doors it opens into the Chinese corporate market. “A lot of our international alumni are based in China, and we have an opportunity to deepen those bonds,” he says.
A NEW EMPHASIS ON SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS
For Prashantham, a special appeal of his new job was to have an impact on the core and elective curriculum at the school. “One of the things I said to the dean is that I am moving to a state in my career to promote Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and that was consistent with the school’s strategy,” he says. “Encouraging faculty to devote classes to SDGs is a priority. My brief to them was, ‘Don’t worry about the Financial Times rankings. We are supposed to be in the Decade of Action. These young people will finish their MBAs and go back into the workforce. These are the people who over the next three decades will be instrumental in moving this agenda forward.'”
He wants the United Nations’ seventeen Sustainable Development Goals embedded into all the core courses. “I want to see the SDG goals become more and more a natural part of the conversation in the curriculum and in core courses,” he says. “I don’t want us to only have a portfolio of cool-sounding electives; it’s more about bringing it into the core conversation.”
It’s not that rankings are unimportant to him. The school’s MBA program entered the Financial Times‘ Top Ten for the first time in 2018, placing seventh earlier this year. That puts CEIBS in a heady global company with the likes of Yale, Northwestern Kellogg, and Chicago Booth and European greats such as INSEAD, London Business School, and IESE Business School in Spain. Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton sat out this years’ Financial Times list.
‘RANKINGS ARE IMPORTANT…I WANT US TO REMAIN IN THE TOP TEN’
Prashantham says he thinks about rankings “a fair bit but I have two views of them. I think the rankings are an important indicator and we have done extremely well in hitting the Top Ten. I want us to remain in the Top Ten. But what fundamentally matters is that we need to be a world-class MBA program and the best in the world for anyone who is interested in a career in China. If we are No. 8 in the world and the go-to place for China that is what ultimately matters.”
He foresees no threat to the school’s impressive showing, even in a country that seems less hospitable toward capitalism. “China remains very much a market-oriented economy,” he says. “I think now we have reached a stage where these tech companies are very big and powerful and in some ways, the reaction to these companies is not dissimilar to the concerns around Facebook in the Western World. State-owned enterprises have never gone away. They have always been important. You are just seeing the state address the challenges of big tech companies. It is an attempt to course-correct which is not unseen elsewhere.”
And what about a crackdown on the MBA, which is after all the quintessential capitalist degree? Not in the cards, says Prashantham. “I don’t think the MBA is particularly in the spotlight and losing relevance,” he maintains. “We have been insulated from the downturn in applications for the MBA before the pandemic. How the border situation pans out in the next two years is a bigger issue. But if you are interested in a career that involves business in China, this is the place to be.”