Hong Kong business school courses, including two top-ranked executive MBAs, have delayed their start dates until next year because of the coronavirus pandemic and student objections to online learning.
The delays show how steep the challenge is for universities in the territory, which has already been rocked by political crisis, to maintain their position as a regional business education hub.
Hong Kong hosts both the Kellogg-HKUST executive MBA programme — which is offered by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the Kellogg School of Management in the US — and the EMBA-Global Asia, offered by HKU Business School in partnership with London Business School and Columbia Business School.
The Asian financial centre has banned most non-residents from coming to Hong Kong and imposed a two-week quarantine on the vast majority of newly arrived residents, making it difficult for students and faculty to attend classes in person.
Steven Dekrey, a founder of and adviser to the Kellogg-HKUST programme, which has come first in the Financial Times’s executive MBA ranking several times, says the pandemic has “wreaked havoc” on enrolments and forced it to delay the start date from September to early next year.
Students on the course attempted a trial “hybrid” class in September with some students online and others spread out across a classroom, but they felt it was not the same. “It’s very hard to give attention to students online when you have faces in front of you,” Prof DeKrey says.
The EMBA-Global Asia, which usually involves students travelling between the UK, the US and Hong Kong and was also due to start in September, has similarly faced delays, according to HKU Business School dean Cai Hongbin.
“The emphasis was on peer interactions, so it’s not feasible,” Prof Cai says, adding that the course is likely to start next March.
Frank Chen, dean of the College of Business at City University of Hong Kong, says it had to set up temporary classrooms in the Chinese city of Shenzhen so that a cohort of executive MBA students, who had been due to start earlier, can begin their course this semester. City University’s business school entered the Financial Times rankings last year.
Hong Kong traditionally attracts a lot of mainland Chinese students, but many have been unable to get into the territory because of the travel restrictions. “Students really hate online teaching,” Prof Chen says.
Prof Dekrey says there has been a hit to enrolments, with some students so serious about learning in person that they have deferred to 2022: “It’s hopefully a short-term blip, but nonetheless it’s significant.”
Even before the pandemic, Hong Kong had faced a series of anti-government protests in which local students clashed with police. This reduced the territory’s appeal to international students, particularly those from mainland China — who were further deterred by incidents, publicised in state media, where mainlanders were targeted by protesters.
Prof Dekrey says that at one point last year his programme offered a course in Macau to allay concerns about visiting Hong Kong. “The international students wanted to be assured that Hong Kong was safe,” he says. “They weren’t as worried about the human rights issues.”
The national security law effect
In June, Beijing enforced a new national security law in Hong Kong, which has been criticised as a threat to the freedoms promised when the UK handed the territory to China 1997.
The education sector generally, which the pro-Beijing camp sees as unpatriotic, has become a focal point. Some pro-democracy schoolteachers and academics have lost their jobs and some university professors, particularly in social sciences, fear their lessons could fall foul of the law.
However, the deans, including Prof Cai, say the law has eased the concerns of mainland Chinese business students. Prof Cai says this is one reason HKU Business School has seen “application numbers bounce back again”.
Numbers have also been boosted in the territory as students who might previously have gone to the US have decided to study closer to home because of President Donald Trump’s tougher stance on immigration, as well as the spread of coronavirus.
“You have still got this issue with US immigration . . . which raises demand for Asia a bit,” Prof Dekrey says.
With the pandemic and the domestic political situation, Hong Kong universities still face an “enormous challenge”, Prof Cai says. Perceptions of the territory have changed, both among mainland Chinese students and foreign faculty staff considering working there.
“Since last year the political issues in Hong Kong [have become] quite intense and this certainly will have an impact on universities,” Prof Cai says. “It takes more discussion to convince people Hong Kong is still an international city.”