When Steven DeKrey took charge of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology's graduate business programmes in 1996, one of the professor's first executive decisions was to cut back on enrolment. The move, perhaps puzzling to some, was part of a clear-cut strategy to focus squarely on quality.
The long-term aim was to build a school that could rival any in its scope, standards, faculty and global reputation. But DeKrey realised the best first step, made easier by government funding, was to impose a more stringent admissions policy while cultivating a genuinely international outlook.
"We eliminated `straight through' graduates [who had just completed their first degree] and reached out beyond Hong Kong," says DeKrey, who takes justifiable pride in the school's jump from ninth to sixth in the Financial Times' most recent ranking of top business programmes around the world.
"You have a vision of what top quality is and then go after it, but getting there is incremental. Not to disparage others, but at the time Asia was not known for good MBAs, so there was also a huge opportunity to set new standards."
From two MBA groups in the mid-1990s, there are now 10 distinct programmes, including full-time and part-time options, a bilingual executive MBA (EMBA) and a master's specialising in global finance. Intake has risen correspondingly to between 500 and 600 students a year, though class size is capped at 60, with a continued stress on quality over quantity.
In one of the early initiatives designed to accelerate improvements in the curriculum, DeKrey made a point of establishing closer contacts with the business community and appointing senior executives as adjunct professors. This helped ensure topicality and corporate realism to balance the theoretical and research-based aspects of courses.
"We now have 14 to 15 high-calibre guys from industry teaching subjects such as business law, venture capital and Asian investment," he says. "If you bring in people from successful companies, they have valuable lessons to share and stimulate discussion in the classroom."
When launching the EMBA programme in 1998, DeKrey also saw that a partnership with Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management would provide a significant boost in terms of international reputation and joint courses. "I went after that from the start," he says. "It was an important third party endorsement and made our sales pitch to students easier to explain."
As things evolved, the tie-up also played its part in attracting a more risk-taking, entrepreneurial type of student keen to combine the advantages of a "Western" business education with perspectives and experience from Asia. Many classes now have almost equal numbers of local and overseas students, a balance the school has always sought to encourage.
"It is also intentional that 20 to 25 per cent of our intake is from the mainland," says DeKrey, who held academic posts at the Kellogg School and the University of Florida before moving to Hong Kong. "We realise, though, that China is not one place but multiple markets, and we want to diversify there, too."
These days, he notes, with the shift in the world economy, there is a lot pressure to "Asianise" the curriculum further. Therefore, the challenge is to respond to such demands, while maintaining the hard-won identity as a school with a true global outlook training international leaders.
"We've come a long way and have been very successful in mimicking the top schools in the world," DeKrey says. "But the goal now is to adjust our focus from what other schools are doing and look more at markets, case studies and entrepreneurs in Asia. One constraint now is faculty. We have some exceptional people with the research experience and ability, but we need more."