Financial TimesZero-Covid policy dents appeal of Hong Kong MBAs

September 26, 20220

Hong Kong’s top-ranked business schools risk losing out to regional rivals as companies exit the Chinese territory amid Beijing’s zero-Covid policies and clampdowns on civil freedoms in the city.

Enrolment by international students at Hong Kong’s top universities has dropped for the first time in a decade, according to the city’s University Grants Committee. Students appear to have been deterred by China’s imposition of a sweeping national security law following pro-democracy protests in 2019, as well as pandemic curbs.

But academics at the city’s business schools worry that China’s strict zero-Covid policy will have a more lasting effect on enrolment, and push students to take courses elsewhere, such as Singapore.

“More than half of our students in our full-time MBAs used to be from overseas, pre-pandemic,” says Waiman Cheung, associate dean of graduate studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Business School. “That has suffered during Covid.”

Chicago Booth has moved its executive MBA courses from Hong Kong to Singapore temporarily while international students are unable to travel to Hong Kong. Its Hong Kong campus remains open for locally based students. And a joint executive MBA between the University of Hong Kong, Columbia Business School, and London Business School has been suspended due to insufficient demand.

Official data show that overseas student enrolment in all degrees across Hong Kong’s universities fell after 2019/20, although stronger demand from mainland Chinese students made up for part of that loss.

Bar chart of Untitled SubtitleNumber of non-local students in UGC funded universities in the city showing Enrolment by Chinese student in Hong Kong universities climbs

At University of Hong Kong, the city’s oldest university, enrolment by international postgraduate students has fallen from 1,382 in 2018 to 1,249 this year. But mainland Chinese students enrolled in postgraduate courses at HKU surged from 4,994 in 2018 to 7,927 this year.

Student numbers for executive MBA programmes at CUHK have yet to rebound, though. Cheung reports that enrolment is down by about a quarter.

Hong Kong’s weeks-long mandatory hotel quarantine for arrivals was eased to three days in August, and will finally be scrapped on Monday. By contrast, Singapore began relaxing border entry rules last year and lifted travel restrictions for arrivals in April. That has helped the city-state to recover more quickly than Hong Kong.

“In terms of the business environment, Hong Kong is indeed lagging behind Singapore,” Cheung says. “Senior executives from multinational firms are unwilling to come to Hong Kong because of the quarantine requirements. It is quite obvious that fewer companies are willing to do business in Hong Kong.”

However, the US-China trade war, which began in 2018, has prompted more mainland-Chinese students to remain in Asia for postgraduate study, as opposed to attending top institutions in the west, Cheung adds.

The appeal of top business schools in Singapore for both mainland Chinese and international students is only likely to grow if zero-Covid policies remain in place for a prolonged period, says Andrew Rose, dean at National University of Singapore Business School.

Pandemic restrictions combined with radical changes to Hong Kong’s political landscape is “fundamentally eroding” the territory’s competitive position, he says.

But Albert Wong, an adjunct professor at CUHK Business School’s Department of Management and chief executive of the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks, says: “Hong Kong’s universities still have a strong reputation”. In his view, they “need to work harder” to encourage students to stay in the city after graduating.

Singapore has not escaped the effects of pandemic clampdowns, though. Katy Montgomery, associate dean of degree programmes at the global graduate business school INSEAD, which has campuses in Paris, Singapore, Abu Dhabi and San Francisco, says fewer MBA students have opted to be based at its Asia campus because of Covid curbs and quarantine rules.

Students want to be in “countries where it is easier to go back and forth”, she explains. “Being able to travel freely, particularly during the job search, is super important.”

The Chinese University of Hong Kong where the dean says “more than half of our students in our full-time MBAs used to be from overseas pre-pandemic” © Paul Yeung/Bloomberg

Given this factor, Shantanu Bhattacharya, deputy dean of education at Singapore Management University’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business, believes scrapping zero-Covid policies would benefit business schools across Asia.

“China is a very important part of the business ecosystem in Asia, so our hope is that the lockdowns in China and Hong Kong get lifted soon,” he says.

International courses have been affected, too. For the executive MBA developed jointly by the National University of Singapore Business School and the UCLA Anderson School of Management, students used to travel to China, India and the US during a 15-month programme.

But, as Covid rules mean “China is just impossible to get in and out of”, says Rose, a segment had been moved to South Korea. It was then shifted again to Spain after an uptick of infections in the East Asian country.

Though business schools have adapted to “hybrid” teaching under Covid social distancing rules, he says tutors have sought to “maximise” face-to-face interactions — though he concedes this has been “difficult and expensive”.

Some full-time students from mainland China have asked to complete their MBA programmes remotely back home. But, says Rose, “we typically say no to them. It dilutes the value of the degree.”

This article has been amended since original publication to make clear that Chicago Booth’s Hong Kong campus remains open for locally based students

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