Local demand for MBAs rising across Southeast Asia

Updated: Jul 22

EXECUTIVE EDUCATION: The Master of Business Administration (MBA) course, along with the Executive MBA program, is becoming hot property in Southeast Asia, even as employers and leadership aspirants in the US and Europe are tempering their demand.

While business schools in Europe and the US are seeing a downturn in applications, the reverse is true for their Southeast Asian counterparts. In 2021, for example, over half of schools in the US saw applications decline, while 63% of programs in Asia reported an uptick in student numbers. Particularly sought-after courses had an even more impressive year last year, with 68% of programs reporting growth.

The reasons behind this divide are multi-faceted. However, one can point out the convergence of factors that has seen the region emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic as an economic leader and technology hotspot. Asia is expected to be the world's most significant driver of economic growth in the coming decades, contributing 60% of global growth by 2030, according to estimates published by the Asian Development Bank.

With 10 Asia-based business schools now firmly ensconced in the QS Global MBA Rankings Top 50 schools, and 12 from Southeast Asia included across the full list, leadership aspirants are seeing clear value in continuing higher education in the region.

One of those schools is the internationally recognised INSEAD in Singapore. At the height of the pandemic, when many schools were worrying about intake numbers,it bucked the global trend to see applications for its MBA programme increase by 58%, compared to pre-Covid-19 levels.

Global Director of Admissions Virginie Fougea (pictured, right) said there has been a particular emphasis on strategies to “future-proof” professional careers locally. "Candidates are deciding to invest in themselves by building their knowledge, connections, and network, in order to be better poised to pounce on opportunities during a recovery", she told Chief of Staff Asia.

Another to notice the region's growing MBA numbers was Rahul Choudaha, Director of Industry Insights and Research Communications at the Graduate Management Admission Council in Singapore. Choudaha said candidates in the region recognised the shakiness of the economic climate and their place in it. "At its core, an MBA can help (professionals) emerge from a volatile economy more career-ready," he emphasised.

Great to have, but no longer essential

Despite many professionals seeking out this form of executive development, some industry leaders warn that an MBA qualification is not the “be-all” or “end-all”. Indeed, HR and recruitment warn that paper qualifications are no substitute for on-the-job experience.

David Blasco, Randstad Singapore's Senior Director for Accounting and Finance, says that while an MBA shows the theoretical and technical knowledge required to get your foot in the door, its importance diminishes as candidates progress further in their careers. "An MBA qualification with zero work experience does not mean the candidate jumps straight into middle management,” he says. “Potential employees must still start at the bottom and be willing and open to accepting a junior position," he stressed.

Guy Farrow, the Managing Partner at business management consultancy Heidrick & Struggles (pictured right), concurs. He says most employers will have an MBA or similar post-graduate qualification in their job description requirements at the senior executive levels, but it is no longer a deal-breaker requirement.

"We wouldn't eliminate someone because they didn't have an MBA if they had good experience," he noted. "Increasingly at higher levels, there's a focus on what you've done in your career. You're being judged more on what you've achieved."

While businesses in Southeast Asia still desire strong candidates with executive education under their belts, there is one caveat: experience still matters. The Covid-19 pandemic and the technological expansion of the region have indeed seen students flock to the region's business schools in record numbers.

However, HR professionals must still be discerning when it comes to checking the real-world aptitudes of their potential hires at every level. MBAs and Executive MBAs completed in Southeast Asia are an essential indicator of a candidate's aptitude and leadership potential, and help employers identify top-level talent, but on-the-job talent will never be surpassed.

This opinion was extracted from Chief of Staff Asia's report on Executive Education. For further coverage, and access to the full report, please see any of the below links:

The self-funded MBA army: New trends in post-Covid executive education (full report)

Asian business schools on the rise (news highlight).

Local demand for MBAs rising across Southeast Asia (feature).

MBA Graduates enjoy growing demand (infographic).

Southeast Asia's place in the global business school landscape (feature).

The virtual classroom: Exploring online MBA choices in Asia (feature).

MBAs and Executive MBAs: Who should be footing the bill? (feature).

Executive education: A reneweed case for employer sponsorship (opinion).

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