Pressure At the Top

With a reputation for intensity, Tsinghua is the top name in China's B-schools. Says one professor: It's not a relaxed place

The International MBA program at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management was launched in 1997, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management. Unlike other programs that lead to MBAs awarded from Western partners, Tsinghua's IMBA program results in an MBA from Tsinghua and a certificate from MIT.

To call Tsinghua China's most prestigious university is an understatement. Tsinghua graduates dominate the ranks of government and state-owned enterprises, and the management school itself was founded by former Premier Zhu Rongji. It's now perhaps the most selective of all Chinese B-schools, with only about one out of five domestic Chinese applicants granted admission. Rui Peng Di, a professor of corporate finance in the International MBA program, sat down recently with BusinessWeek B-Schools Editor Louis Lavelle to talk about the Tsinghua culture. Following are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Getting into Tsinghua is akin to winning the lottery, and for those who succeed the workload is immense: eight classes a semester in the first year, each with a final exam and a 50-page paper. At one time, the pressure was so bad that suicide was not uncommon. Is it still that bad?

The MBA students are rather different from the undergraduate students. The undergraduate students come into Tsinghua through a highly competitive system. They have to pass a college entrance exam. They have to go through this strict procedure. You'd imagine they would relax once they enter.

They don't?

The fact is, they can't. If you look at your peers, they're all smart, and you used to think you were smart, right, but someone is smarter. That's where the pressure comes from. They cannot live up to their own expectations.

And the MBA students?

The MBA students are a different crowd. A lot of MBA students are not graduate students from the top universities. In fact, most of them are graduates of the secondary class of universities and colleges. Some of them come to Tsinghua to try to change fate.

With a good name tag, they can better market themselves. It's definitely a bonus. The MBA students have at least some understanding of how Chinese society and Chinese business is operating. They get some exposure to the different social problems, economic problems, and political problems. They're not as immature as the undergraduate students.

Is there a belief that Tsinghua's reputation will stand them in good stead when they graduate?

The name itself says a lot of things. [In the IMBA program,] a lot of them are hoping that once they get an IMBA education, with the strong reputation of Tsinghua and MIT, they'll be able to land a good job. Basically, there's a premium, and that's a very big attraction.

How would you describe the IMBA class?

I would say about half of them speak excellent English. They look and perform and behave very professionally. A lot of them used to work in multinational corporations, and they have some understanding of the Chinese business rules and Western business practices.

What about the social life of the school? Do students ever relax?

This place is pretty uptight. It's not a relaxed place. Beida [University] is more relaxed. Tsinghua is more reserved and more detail-oriented. Look at the motto: Action is better than words. You're influenced heavily by the university culture.

Is there any type of student who fits in better than others?

What distinguishes Tsinghua from other programs is a strong background in engineering. Tsinighua used to be an engineering school. We're pretty strong in operations management, information management, things like that. A lot of our top-notch professors are trained as engineers.

That's actually [part of the appeal] of the Tsinghua MBA programs. You'll find a lot of our students have an engineering background. They relate to Tsinghua better.

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