Olav Aarna, the Rector of EBS between 2000 and 2003, recalls that Madis Habakuk wanted to gain ground in China in two stages: first by bringing students over to EBS and, thereafter, by establishing a branch of EBS in China. “We were quite successful in implementing the first stage of the plan between 2001 and 2006, annually engaging nearly 30 students from China in the EBS master’s programme. However, we never succeeded in launching the second stage. In retrospect, it would have been beyond our capacity,” says Olav Aarna.
A more serious relationship with the Chinese was established in the spring of 2000. It was the proposal of the EBS European education policy centre (alongside universities in Finland and Switzerland) to start engaging the Chinese in the master’s programme. A huge role in establishing the successful relationship was played by EBS’s IT technology professor Albert Chi – a Chinese national himself. Madis Habakuk admitted that the Chinese market comes with a completely different culture and rules and that it would be next to impossible to reach the market without a “Chinese connection”. A European guy in China is like an elephant in a porcelain store.
This was the beginning of the educational cooperation between the two countries – the tiny Estonia and the immeasurable China, supported by a “Chinese connection”. In May, a high-level Chinese education delegation paid a visit to Estonia. As a result, EBS and the Woman’s Academy at Shandong signed a memorandum of cooperation.
This was the first major indication that both parties are interested in the cooperation. Negotiations lasted through the summer well into the autumn, until it was the Estonian delegation’s time to pay a visit to China. At the end of October 2000, Madis Habakuk and Albert Chi, together with the representative of the Estonian Ministry of Education Maiki Uda and Vice Chairman of the Tallinn City Council Peeter Lepp visited China.
Seven months of negotiations were finally completed in Shandong (a province with a population of nearly 90 million) with the signing of the cooperation agreement both between the City of Tallinn and the City of Jinan (the capital of the Shandong province) and between the Estonian Ministry of Education and the Education Board of Shandong province.
“Why would Estonia need Chinese and why is the Government of the Republic and the Prime Minister personally involved (Mart Laar, the Prime Minister at the time, met with Madis Habakuk and welcomed EBS’s plan to bring Chinese students to Estonia – editor)?
According to official statistics, the People’s Republic of China has a population of 1.3 billion people. The unofficial number is 2 billion. It is a gigantic market, with a rapid increase in purchasing power. When it comes to the world’s largest market – and a rising market at that – where friendship is a significant contributor to business success, it is not difficult to draw conclusions.
So far, EBS has been teaching how to become a successful leader in the 21st-century Europe, suggesting that those graduating from EBS will have a chance on the European labour market. The visit to China, however, showed that major global companies are already there.
I see no reason for Estonian businessmen to idly watch by, while others share the world’s greatest opening market. In order to successfully run a business in China, you need to have a “Chinese connection”. There are no alternatives. This constitutes an opportunity for the students of EBS. They will be here next summer. We can choose to ignore them. We can choose to establish a relationship with them, take them everywhere and help them do well in Estonia. We can choose to take Chinese to live with us. These opportunities are unique on a pan-Baltic scale and will only be offered to the students of EBS.
EBS reaped the first fruits in the summer of 2001, with 32 Chinese students admitted to the EBS master’s programme. According to Albert Chi, one of the initiators and coordinators of the EBS Chinese master’s programme, the main reason why the Chinese opted for Estonia was the desire to complete the two-year MBA programme in the European environment.
In the introductory summer semester, the Chinese took an intensive course in English – a language which many of them were not proficient in. The curriculum also covered Estonian, computer studies, the basics of economy and background information on Estonia.
20-year-old Canbin Qi, Chinese master’s student who took up studies in EBS in the summer, told the student newsletter that Tallinn was a beautiful city, the local people nice, EBS an excellent school and lecturers breathtakingly good. Even though the tuition fee is a small fortune for the Chinese, Canbin Qi emphasised the excellent price and quality ratio in EBS.
All Chinese were given English names in EBS, with Canbin, initially named Gavin, being the only one who requested a name change. Canbin opted for Bruce instead – as in Bruce Lee and Bruce Willis.
Enterprises expanding beyond Estonian borders have contacted EBS in an effort to seek out foreign students familiar with the local language and customs. For example, when the Port of Tallinn launched its cooperation with China to construct a container terminal in Muuga, the students of EBS supported the project.
The master’s programme manager Silja Mägi gave an overview of the Chinese master’s students from the lecturer’s point of view in the lecturers’ newsletter “Õppejõudude Infoleht” of September 2001. “The relationship with the lecturers is respectful and honest. Chinese students take their studies very seriously. No-one skips class without good reason. All instructions are fulfilled conscientiously, with active participation in class. Incredibly, they do more homework than actually assigned. Chinese students have less work experience, compared to Estonian master’s students.
Lecturer Erika Saks also sees a difference in expectations. “The Chinese expectations of EBS revolve around an academic education. This prevails over exciting and trendy theories, which is the main interest for Estonian master’s students. The Chinese are not ashamed to admit that they have never heard of organisational behaviour. This differs completely from the attitude of Estonian master’s students. Estonians like to leave an impression of being a smart person, even if there is no actual base for this.
As the first Chinese who were admitted to EBS were conscientious and did well in class, the EBS delegation started paying regular visits to China to engage further students. In 200, EBS had about a hundred Chinese students, with the first 32 having received their master’s degree. For the most part, all alumni returned to China and found excellent jobs.
One of the alumni, Lin Jia (with the English name of Justin) started working as EBS’s representative in China. With his help, partner universities were sought out in China for engaging future EBS master’s students amongst the local bachelor’s students. In previous periods, students were recruited via agencies and newspaper ads.
Problems with the Chinese could not, however, be circumvented. At the end of 2005, the Ministry of Education and Research issued a precept to EBS with regard to the Chinese students. It appeared that EBS had admitted to the master’s programme at least 51 students whose level of education should only have allowed them to study in the bachelor’s programme, rather than the master’s programme. In the spring of 2006, EBS reached an agreement with the Ministry of Education and Research, transferring all Chinese master’s students to the bachelor programme.
The focus on Chinese students reduced thereafter, but the relationships with the educational institutions and corporations of the Asian giant were maintained. Exchange students and lecturers still travel between China and Estonia. On EBS’s initiative, Estonian business delegations have visited China to set up and develop business relations. EBS’s 20th birthday was also celebrated in China, with the first Chinese alumni conference held in Jinan in 2008. Alumni events continue to this day.
For the first time in EBS history, the International Day was organised for introducing different cultures to students in the autumn of 2003. EBS students of five different countries participated: Italy, China, Switzerland, India, Estonia. All participants were asked to bring something characteristic to their culture.
The Italians let students play soccer in the EBS halls, the Swiss brought chocolate and cheese, the Chinese offered various snacks and green jasmine tee and handed out cards with hieroglyphics, enthusiastically explaining the meaning. The Indian students did not arrive until the end of the day, bringing self-cooked meals, fresh from the oven.