Warren Mitty is still buzzing from his experience of studying for an MBA over the past two years at Seoul’s Sungkyunkwan University.
Ten years ago the idea that an ambitious Liverpudlian engineer with a keen interest in Asian business would choose Seoul as the destination for an MBA — over the top universities in Hong Kong, Singapore or China — was just an aspiration for Korean business schools.
But for Mr Mitty, cheaper fees — helped by scholarships and incentives for foreigners — coupled with professors from the top western universities and an “innovative” curriculum were all too good to turn down.
“They are trying to create this ethos where they are not stuck in the old ways that people perceive around Korean business and Korean culture,” says Mr Mitty, now a senior manager at the Solaire Resort and Casino in the Philippines. “It’s very fast moving.”
In South Korea, a country with a dearth of natural resources, one’s education is of prime importance. But throughout the nation’s rapid economic development — the transformational decades after the 1950s known as “the miracle on the Han [river]” — Korean students with means or a scholarship flocked overseas in search of a qualification from a good foreign university.
The business elite, especially, places great importance on foreign qualifications, illustrated by the fact that the billionaire tycoons today leading the four biggest chaebol — Samsung, Hyundai, LG and SK — all studied at top US universities.
Now there are signs that the next generation of corporate leaders will not need to travel so far.
South Korea’s business schools are rising through the global rankings and attracting more foreign students. This reflects a years-long process of deregulation — essentially opening the universities up to foreign staff and students — internationalising the curriculum, and making connections with both local businesses and other top business schools across Asia, the US and Europe.
In 2010, no South Korean institution featured in the Financial Times ranking of the top 100 global MBA programmes — now Sungkyunkwan University regularly ranks at around 50. Korea University and Yonsei University are regularly in the top 50 of the FT executive MBA rankings.
Theresa Cho, professor and associate dean at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Business, says the curriculum across the region’s top schools has become “globalised, standardised”.
The percentage of international students at SNU’s global MBA programme for example has more than doubled to about 45 per cent in 2020, compared with seven years ago.
“Almost all of our faculty have taught at [overseas] universities, many of them in the US and Canada and in Europe . . . So what we teach over there we teach over here,” says Prof Cho.
Links with business
The unique benefit for MBA students in South Korea, argues Prof Cho, is the integration and “acculturation” into networks within companies including tech giants Samsung and LG, or the carmaker Hyundai. It is a “tacit”, not explicit, process, she explains, of introducing students to South Korean executives and entrepreneurs. This is boosted by direct sponsorships of business schools by the chaebol groups, as well as scholarships.
“I’m teaching a course on negotiation that consists of 35 students. I counted at least a dozen from Samsung-affiliated companies, yet another half dozen from LG and another one from [cosmetics group] AmorePacific,” she says, adding this environment is “incredible” for student networking.
Another key change over the past 10 years is the close links forged with universities around the world, meaning students can meet more people from countries and businesses outside South Korea via placements, dual programmes with other schools and cross-school elective courses.
“That really has been very helpful,” says Prof Cho, noting that SNU is part of the Global Network for Advanced Management, allowing students in Seoul to take courses from the network’s 31 member institutions, including Yale and Oxford.
The prestige surrounding the top foreign universities — in Europe and the US, particularly — does still lure some South Koreans.
Lucy*, a former chaebol employee now studying at a highly ranked US university and aiming to secure a job in Washington, says that “without a doubt” there is still a perception that even South Korean companies favour foreign-educated candidates.
The coronavirus pandemic, however, has given students everywhere another factor to consider when comparing countries and programmes. Courses have moved online, but real-life interaction and opportunities to meet high-calibre people face-to-face have traditionally been a selling point of MBAs.
Prof Cho says that South Korea’s comparative success at suppressing the virus — thanks to mass testing and high-tech contact tracing — means that while many university classes have moved online, offline events including networking have continued this year, albeit at a smaller scale.
In the US, which is struggling to contain the virus, Lucy says she has considered deferring the remainder of her course.
The Financial Times is inviting readers to put questions to a panel of experts on studying in the Asia-Pacific region. Andrew Jack, global education editor, will co-ordinate questions with business school faculty guests on November 4, including Theresa Cho.
If you are an FT subscriber, please post your questions in the comment field below a separate story in this report — ‘Q&A: Should I study business in Asia?’ — where our panel will respond for an hour at 9am GMT. Non-subscribers can ask in advance by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
“That’s all we talk about, honestly. If you want to network with someone, it’s going to be a scheduled Zoom call,” she says. “Casual conversations in the hallway that you would have at school are now these strictly scheduled 30-minute Zoom calls. I’m living my life in 30-minute increments.”
Back in Seoul, while the business schools continue to focus on globalising and modernising, not all the old ways have been lost.
“Korean business culture is heavily influenced by after-work socialising — drinking and eating together,” says Mr Mitty. “This is where Koreans really open up, and you really get to know them. This was very important in the MBA as well.”
*Lucy’s name has been changed at her request