AS HE left Rupert Murdoch's office at the Sun newspaper clutching a fat cheque, John Quelch realised he was interested in business. He was a history student at Oxford and had not previously given the subject much thought. But in 1972 he stepped in to help Cherwell, the student rag, after cocky editors (for such people can occasionally be found at that university) had driven it, in his view, into the river after which it was named.
The young Mr Quelch displayed a certain chutzpah, too. He turned up at Mr Murdoch's office with a rudimentary business plan “which wouldn't have passed muster with any accountant”, and walked out with a sizeable sum. Cherwell's editors were duly dispatched. One, Peter Stothard, went on to edit the Times. The other, Howard Davies, became chairman of Britain's Financial Services Authority. Mr Quelch took over at Cherwell.
It was this first brush with business that encouraged Mr Quelch to take an MBA. But in the glum 1970s in Britain it was unfashionable for a student to show an interest in management. (Indeed, it would be another 24 years before Oxford opened a business school.) So he headed to America, first to Wharton and then to Harvard Business School, where he stayed for most of his career and became a star professor of marketing. He also had a brief stint as dean of the London Business School.
Now he is off to China. At the end of this month he will become the dean of the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai, perhaps the best business school in mainland China.
It says a lot about business education in China that CEIBS can attract a dean of Mr Quelch's calibre. Nonetheless, he should not expect the cosy autonomy he enjoyed at Harvard. All education is tightly regulated in China. CEIBS, which opened in 1994 with help from the European Commission, is more free-thinking than most. But still, it is required to have a state partner, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. And Mr Quelch will have a shadow who bows to Beijing, in the form of a Chinese co-dean.
Business education in China is still in its infancy, but the market is growing quickly. Demand is ravenous. Haiyong Ma of the Changchun University of Science and Technology says there are more than 30,000 MBA students enrolled in 184 approved programmes. Quality is patchy, however. Fewer than half a dozen programmes are up to international standards. Many students still prefer to go overseas if they can, believing that an MBA from America, Hong Kong or Singapore carries more cachet.
CEIBS is one of the few Chinese schools that seeks to compete with the global elite. It attracts a fair number of foreign faculty and students onto its MBA programme. Unlike some other Chinese business schools, it prepares students for careers at multinational firms, not just state-owned enterprises.
It is a cliché that America is run by lawyers and China by engineers, observes Mr Quelch. This mindset is evident in business education, too, he reckons. A disproportionate number of Chinese academics research quantitative subjects such as finance and economics, he says, and Chinese students are also more likely to major in these areas.
So Chinese schools still rely on Western staff, such as Mr Quelch, for the fuzzier subjects such as human resources, marketing and leadership. These professors like to use the case-study method, but some of their Chinese students feel uncomfortable with the heated classroom debates that this requires. CEIBS embraces case studies, which will no doubt please Mr Quelch, as he is a prolific author of such studies and has so far sold 3.4m copies of them.
Outside the classroom, Chinese businesses have been slow to adopt “soft” management skills. The result, claims Mr Quelch, is a dearth of managers who can operate internationally. As Chinese firms expand around the world the demand for such people will surely grow.
CEIBS graduated 740 students from its “executive” MBA last year, a part-time course, making it the largest such programme in the world, says Mr Quelch. But there is plenty of room to expand. Mr Quelch hopes to import the American tradition of alumni donating money to their old schools. That could be ticklish. Chinese donors may expect something in return, such as a place for a thick son. (Some American donors expect this, too.) Mr Quelch lives in interesting times.
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition
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