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HongKongEcho: Building a business school for a business city

Hong Kong lives and breathes business. And yet its business schools haven’t always led the pack. We dropped by to chat with the Dean of the school that helped set a new standard for Hong Kong, Asia and beyond.

Professor Tam Kar Yan’s face lights up when we mention his love of thriller novels. “I don’t always have as much time to read as I’d like however,” admits the affable Dean of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) Business School.

Tam has followed the school’s remarkable rise closer than most, he explains, as we take in the view of Victoria Harbour from the 15th floor of their off-campus facility in the heart of the city’s Central business district. “We’ve always been a kind of ‘startup’ university. We’re quite a young institution and we like to maintain our entrepreneurial mindset – we should be able to embrace failure.”

Professor Tam Kar Yan,
Dean of the HKUST Busines School

Having joined in 1992 as a founding faculty member, today he’s at the helm of a school that has raised more than a few eyebrows for its ability to unsettle the traditional established order of university rankings.

Upon its inception, many universities in Hong Kong had been conceived with a British model in mind, where business schools were less of a priority. HKUST Business School was the only school with a faculty promotion system very much in line with the US, with several professors having trained there. The founding Dean also happened to previously work at the Kellogg School of Management in Illinois.

Hence its now-renowned joint Executive MBA programme with Kellogg, which has topped the Financial Times’ global rankings in nine of the past twelve years. But with a rapidly evolving economy demanding new skills, competencies and mindsets, you might wonder whether a university is really the right place to prepare for the business world.


The inside look

Almost 5,000 business students, made up of over 40 nationalities, are spread across the Clear Water Bay campus – the majority of which are at undergraduate level.

Undergraduate programmes which receive government funding in Hong Kong – such as the HKUST Business School – are normally capped at 20% of non-local students (including mainland Chinese) in their annual intake. HKUST’s intake has been relaxed to 25% having proven its ability to admit high quality non-local candidates, explains Tam. Internally, their policy dictates that half of their non-local intake should be mainland Chinese and the rest from across the globe.

“There’s a huge expectation on us to be producing the right kind of talent to drive the city forward.”

At the postgraduate level, there are no such restrictions. “Most of our PhD students are from mainland China as they have a large pool of highly academically trained students,” he says, while the MBA programme remains decidedly diverse with two thirds of the intake coming from outside Hong Kong or mainland China. From the international intake, roughly half will choose to stay in the city and enter the workforce, Tam estimates.

“Hong Kong is of course a business capital – so there’s a huge expectation on us to be producing the right kind of talent to drive the city forward,” he says, “which means we’re always talking to corporates to make sure our curriculum best meets the needs of society.”

And yet despite the numerous renowned business schools established in Hong Kong today, there’s frequent frustration at an – at least perceived – skills shortage. “That’s a phenomenon we see worldwide because of the rapid advance of technology. It’s a challenge that is by no means unique to business schools or to Hong Kong.”


From Moscow to Guangzhou

Universities are not known for being the fastest to adapt to change, but Tam insists their constantly evolving curriculum is responding to what they perceive is driving the business world today. On that front, data analytics, fintech and coding have all become increasingly integrated across all levels of their curriculum with an online fintech certificate programme currently being developed as pilot project.

“We require all undergraduates to have done at least one elective in coding. Whether you’ll go on to be in human resources, marketing or finance, that knowledge will no doubt be relevant in your career.”

HKUST Business School campus
in Clear Water Bay

It leads to a larger question of whether business schools can remain relevant today. “I was hearing this question even when I was a student,” he says with a laugh, “I think it’s all about the delivery mechanism. Of course, with online delivery we can bring lectures to students at any time – but the differentiating factor is experiential learning; the quality of student interactions and the opportunities we can provide in terms of internships, mentorships and connecting to the community.”

Tam admits the competition is tough. “In the last 15 years Hong Kong has come a long way in developing its business schools to a global standard, while mainland China is also investing heavily in new business schools.”

Standing out from the crowd also means forming unique partnerships. A new pilot Executive MBA programme with the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO launched in November 2018 aims to provide unrivalled access to Central Asia – a part of the world which is less developed in terms of business education. “We see a lot of potential there with the Belt and Road Initiative in mind down the track.”

While Belt and Road is on the horizon, the Greater Bay Area is already taking shape. Work will start in September 2019 on a new HKUST Guangzhou campus – which will include facilities for the business school – with English as its basic language for teaching. Located near the high-speed rail terminal in Guangzhou, the campus is expected to be completed in the next two to three years.

“We have the talent, financial and legal infrastructure here in Hong Kong – so that increased connectivity is a huge opportunity.”

Useful links

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