The Other MBA—and Why It’s Popular in China

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Tuesday, August 24, 2021
Guodong Xu
Regional Head of East Asia , AACSB
Photo by: iStock/JaCZhou
Master’s in business analytics degrees are quickly becoming some of the most sought-after degrees among Chinese business students.

A Master of Business Administration degree is generally referred to as an MBA. But there’s another degree that’s becoming more common, and it could potentially be known by the same acronym—the master’s degree program in business analytics.

In 2004, management scholar Henry Mintzberg argued that many MBA programs tended to recruit young, inexperienced students who have a harder time mastering the art of management, and so those programs emphasized the science of management through analytical and technical forms. His views, which have been applauded by many in the industry, appeared in the book Managers, Not MBAs.

Today, influenced by the digital wave, society’s demand for management education in analytics and technology is only increasing. According to a 2011 report from McKinsey, the United States was projected to have a shortage of 140,000 to 190,000 people with data analytics skills by 2018. In April 2020, the data skills platform QuantHut estimated that the current shortage of data specialists stood at 250,000.

In today’s economy, it seems logical to make several assumptions: The demand for people with analytics skills will increase, their salaries will rise because of the talent shortage, and their opportunities for employment will spread across diverse functional areas.

It’s no surprise, then, that the other MBA—the one in business analytics—has witnessed explosive growth in recent years. In the U.S., most business schools have launched master’s degrees in this area, typically offered as a Master of Science in business or data analytics. Globally, 24 percent of schools responding to AACSB’s 2020–2021 Business School Questionnaire offer at least one master’s program in data analytics, out of the 817 schools that submitted a BSQ Programs Module. Not only do the numbers of programs continue to grow, but schools with existing programs are expanding their offerings and adding analytics tracks in disciplines such as marketing, finance, human resources, and supply chain management.

While U.S. programs in business analytics are popular with American students, they are also increasingly attractive to students from around the world, particularly those from China. One reason is that business analytics relates to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Students who earn STEM degrees are eligible to extend their stay in the U.S. for up to 24 months after the completion of their 12-month optional practical training (OPT). Having that additional experience is very helpful for graduates applying for U.S. H-1B work visas.

Statistics gathered by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) underscore how popular these U.S. programs have been in recent years with Chinese students who have taken the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). These students applied to Master of Business Analytics programs more often than they did to one-year MBA programs or master’s programs in accounting or marketing. The only programs that these students applied to more often were Master of Finance, Master of Management, and two-year MBA options. If we consider the similarity between Master in Management and two-year MBA programs—in terms of audience and course content—the Master of Business Analytics actually was one of the three hottest business majors in terms of applications.

The Market in China

However, analytics programs at Chinese universities have not seen the same growth as programs in the U.S. In my opinion, there are two main explanations.

First, multidisciplinary integration is not particularly strong among China’s higher education institutions. The classification of disciplines in China is very strict, and these disciplines are not always precisely parallel with the way they’re used in other countries or in AACSB standards. In China, business majors such as strategic management, human resource management, marketing, accounting, and finance belong to the academic discipline of business administration. Majors related to data statistics and operation analytics belong to the academic discipline of management science and engineering. Among faculty who teach core business administration courses, there are not many who have backgrounds in data analytics fields, and they are not always willing or able to integrate education across disciplines.

Several Chinese universities have begun to combine analytics degrees with other, more popular professional degree programs to attract more students.

But there is a second and arguably more important reason. Among the 40 professional master’s degree programs in China, the one most relevant to business analytics is the Master of Applied Statistics, which falls within the business-related category at most Chinese universities. However, this degree category is relatively unpopular. Compared with the MBA and other master’s degrees in business disciplines, the Master of Applied Statistics is more quantitative, from the entrance examination to the curriculum. In fact, the program seems more tailored to students who have already laid the foundation of statistics at the undergraduate level.

For these reasons, these programs tend to attract a more selective group of applicants. As an example, the master’s program in data science and business analytics at Fudan University’s School of Management in Shanghai admitted 40 to 50 students for the first time in 2020. By comparison, the school’s MBA program tends to enroll 800 students annually, between those in its full-time and part-time programs. The data science and business analytics program, which grants a professional master’s degree in applied statistics, targets fresh undergraduates who have strong abilities in mathematics, science, and computer programming.

In this context, it makes sense that several Chinese universities have begun to combine analytics degrees with other, more popular professional degree programs to attract more students. These associated degree programs include the MBA as well as master’s programs in fields such as accounting, finance, and engineering management.

For instance, in 2019, Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management began offering a Master of Finance and Business Analytics program that is actually a specialty that relies on the school’s master’s degree in finance. In 2020, Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management, based in Beijing, launched a master’s program in advanced financial management and big data at its campus in Shenzhen. Students in the program will earn a master’s degree in accounting.

Both Peking University and Fudan University have several advantages when it comes to successfully offering analytics-related programs: They have impressive brand names; they have separate and independent statistics departments within their schools of management; and they have their own leaders in the field of statistics, which is uncommon among China’s domestic management schools. While Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management does not have a separate statistics department, it does have a much greater strength in statistics and metrics than most Chinese universities, which also gives Tsinghua an edge in offering business analytics courses.

Cooperative Arrangements

Because so few Chinese universities offer their own master’s programs in business analytics, this market space is likely to be filled through partnerships with schools in other parts of the world. “Sino-foreign cooperative education” falls into two main categories. Cooperative education institutions tend to be overseas universities that have set up physical campuses, facilities, and administrations with partners in China. Cooperative education programs are joint programs run by Chinese universities and overseas partners.

Chinese officials view cooperative education partnerships as a way to attract high-quality overseas educational resources and improve teaching programs in domestic institutions. Since the partner institutions are not affected by China’s restrictions on professional degree categories, they can offer programming that is more flexible and covers contemporary, in-demand topics.

In China, the domestic market for master’s programs in business analytics is booming—despite the challenges posed by the educational regulatory environment and the rigid subject classifications.

Two of the more influential programs offered by Sino-foreign cooperative education institutions include the MS in Data Analytics and Business Computing at NYU Shanghai and the MSc in Business Analytics at Xi’an Jiaotong–Liverpool University. Also highly regarded are several cooperative education programs, including the Tsinghua–Columbia master’s degree program in business analytics, the master’s degree program in accounting data analytics from Shanghai National Accounting Institute–Arizona State University, and the master’s degree program in business analytics from the University of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences–Tulane University.

The curricula of these programs originate from the overseas universities, giving Chinese students a chance to “study abroad without leaving home”—a particularly attractive option during the pandemic. However, the Chinese partner institutions are able to incorporate certain local elements into the programs, which adds even more value for Chinese students studying analytics-related topics.

A New Era

Chinese business schools that want to take part in the burgeoning market for business analytics could take one of several approaches, depending on their resources. For instance, if they have existing relationships with international universities, they can work with their overseas partners to craft master’s programs that blend a Western curriculum with a Chinese perspective. If they belong to universities that have strong departments in statistics or data science, they can combine graduate business programs with offerings in related disciplines.

In China, the domestic market for master’s programs in business analytics is booming—despite the challenges posed by the educational regulatory environment and the rigid subject classifications. Educational institutions that wish to get a share of this promising market segment must move quickly. No longer can business schools merely teach their students the science of management; they also must focus on analytical literacy. As the field of analytics becomes more essential to business, graduate management education must enter a new era.

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published on on July 14, 2021.

Guodong Xu
Regional Head of East Asia , AACSB
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