BEIJING - Mike Bastin insists Western-style management degrees do not always prepare students for the challenges of working in Chinese corporations.
The 45-year-old who has taught in both Western and Chinese universities said that MBA graduates may find any new ideas they have learnt doing their degree rejected by bosses steeped in old practices.
"It can be very frustrating. Chinese businesses lack innovation and creativity. There is often autocratic management and huge centralization of power," he said.
Bastin, who teaches marketing and management at Tsinghua University and brand management at the China Agricultural University in Beijing, is optimistic his graduates will eventually be able to bring a fresh approach when they become more senior.
"Most current senior managers in Chinese organizations are of a generation when things were very different. I keep in touch with MBA students and when they return to the work environment they find it quite tough," he said. "It is like an endurance test and they are often asked to work long hours. When they are eventually put into senior positions, however, they will be the ones who will change the business culture."
Bastin, who is from Bedford in England and has an MBA from Warwick University, lectured in marketing and strategic management at Northampton University before coming to China full-time five years ago.
He believes management and business education in China has attempted to adopt US ideas but is often dragged down by traditional Chinese teaching methods.
"I think there is a sense in China that if you want to learn business you have to do it the American way. The view is that the US is where the best business schools are," he said. "American methods, however, don't always work in a Chinese teaching environment where everything is prescriptive and not participative."
Bastin, who specializes in financial brand management, said the typical Chinese lecture environment involves a professor standing in front of students for two hours solid without a break. "There are no semicircular seating arrangements. It just does not encourage participation, discussion or any form of group work," he said, adding this was a problem because traditional US MBA teaching is based on the Harvard case study approach, which was pioneered at the world leading institution in Allston, Massachusetts, back in the 1920s. This requires students to sit around and to try to resolve problems in various case studies.
"Students on Chinese MBA programs can be relatively passive. Someone makes a presentation and then sits down and everyone claps. In UK universities, where I have taught, the students dive in and try to tear the presentation apart. I think this has something to do with Chinese society, which is very hierarchical," he said.
Bastin said Chinese MBA courses do try to deal with difficult subjects which are particularly relevant to doing business in China. "I have used case studies such as the milk powder scandal and look at the impact of that and how companies might handle these issues from a public relations disaster management perspective," he said. Bastin says there are no major differences between the way business and management is taught at top universities in China since the programs are often taught by western lecturers.
"The top four or five universities offer very similar programs to Western universities and they are taught by mainly foreign academics who they buy in. They might originally have been Chinese but they are now American," he said.
"There is little attempt to make the courses Chinese in any way and they almost have credibility because they are not Chinese."
He believes there are weaknesses at other lesser institutions around China particularly in subject such as marketing, in which Bastin is a specialist.
"Marketing did not appear as a subject at most universities until the mid-1990s. Most, if not all, marketing professors now were previously trained economists who moved into marketing and I think to some extent this reflects in the quality of their teaching," he said.
Bastin also believes one of the weaknesses of business and management teaching in China is that the teachers do not always match up to Western standards. "They are not under the same pressure as their counterparts in western universities. At Warwick university in the UK, for example, you are expected to publish at least one paper in a top journal every year," he said.
"In many Chinese universities there is also a lack of critical thinking in research or desire to come up with something new. It is often descriptive about what happened rather than why it happened. "While Chinese professors are striving to match Western professors in terms of quality and quantity of research publications, they remain slightly behind. However in their efforts to catch up they should not forget the unique characteristics of Chinese business and consumer culture." He said some Chinese academics who are called professors would not achieve the same status in Western universities. "This term professor is taken very lightly in China and would not be the same as a full professor in the UK. Standards in UK universities are a lot higher. A full professorship there is very difficult to achieve," he said.
Bastin said beyond the top institutions there was too much dependence on rote learning, which does not lend itself to business and management training. "The students still expect to sit there for four hours and you talk at them," he said. Bastin does see some signs of improvement.
He believes modern students brought up in the 1990s have much more awareness of the demands of a global business environment and they will make better managers in the future. He said those currently over 40 have to some extent been let down by the quality of business education in the country. "I think there is a need for Chinese management to become even more ambitious in an effort to conquer global markets. They will tell you they are going to be successful but they don't really go for number one status. They have not had the same success as Japanese managers, for example, in overseas markets," he added.