China's once buzzing Master of Business Administration (MBA) market has experienced a second year of declining applicant numbers.
Statistics from the Ministry of Education indicate there were 35,777 applicants for MBA programmes this year, down 20 per cent from last year's figure, which had already dropped by 11 per cent from the figures for the year before.
In Tsinghua University's MBA School, the number of applicants decreased from 4,000 in 2001 to 2,800 in 2002, and was down to 2,300 this year.
Shanghai also witnessed the same situation: the number of MBA applicants for Fudan University's School of Business Management dropped by 20 per cent.
Numerous other, not so well known, educational institutions, fared even worse than the country's top schools.
Teaching quality is the first factor influencing the MBA market, said Zhang Li, assistant dean of Beijing International MBA at Peking University (BiMBA), the country's first joint MBA programme granting US degrees, in association with New York-based Fordham University.
In the early 1990s, when the first group of MBA graduates hit the China market, they had professional training and abundant market experience, both of great benefit to the development of enterprises.
MBA students were once the favourites in the job market, and their salaries shot up dramatically.
But with more and more universities offering MBA courses, the quality of teaching and students cannot be guaranteed in some schools. Thus the overall attitude towards the degree has been influenced, said Zhang.
"The fewer applicants are a healthy sign that the country's MBA market is adjusting after its binge and starting to find a groove for future sound growth." said Zheng Zukang, vice-dean of the management school of Fudan University.
Zhang agrees with Zheng's opinion: "Brand name, or reputation, is the only way for MBA schools to survive, and this can only be secured by superior teaching methods and the quality of their graduates."
BiMBA has connections with 20 business schools in the United States and regularly invites professors to teach in China. "Our students receive foreign education without going abroad," said Vice-Dean Michael Furst.
Currently many Chinese business schools are seeking international partners so they, too, can issue foreign diplomas.
BiMBA has been very cautious in choosing its partners. "We are co-operating with second-rank business schools, rather than the top ones," said Zhang.
"Professors from top schools are normally very busy teaching around the world. China is only a budding market. It is difficult to sign long-term teaching contracts with these professors," Zhang added.
But professors from the second-rank universities can help ensure teaching consistency, which is very crucial for any MBA programme, Zhang said.
Using imported teaching materials also raises the question of teaching quality.
More than half of the MBA schools in the country use imported teaching materials.
Some analysts argue that the foreign teaching materials don't match with the Chinese business situation.
Furst does not agree: "Basic economic theory is the same throughout the world. Methods such as accounting and finance are quite similar, no matter whether you are in a developed or developing country."
But he admitted that investment and marketing strategies in China are different from those employed in most Western countries.
BiMBA's methods involve a combination of foreign and local professors and entrepreneurs.
The China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai favours using international teaching materials and methods.
Yan Jun, the admissions officer of CEIBS said the school is teaching students to solve problems from a global point of view. "Our students either work in multi-national companies or in domestic companies that are going global," Yan said.
In addition to MBA programmes, other types of professional training programmes are entering China, such as MPA (Master of Public Administration) and CFA (Chartered Finance Analyst) programmes, which are also drawing some applicants away from MBA schools.
"Chinese students are getting more and more savvy. They want degrees, but they want knowledge as well," said Furst.