Most of the top schools have campuses in Asia and exchange programmes with prominent Asian institutions. Macquarie Graduate School of Management (MGSM) in Sydney has campuses in Hong Kong and Singapore, Monash Graduate School of Business (GSB) in Melbourne has a campus in Malaysia, while Melbourne Business School (MBS) is a member of Partnerships in International Management, an international consortium of business schools that facilitates the international exchange of MBA and masters students.
Richard Speed, associate dean at MBS, says that students who come to Australia effectively get an Asia-Pacific MBA, but in a Western-style, English-speaking environment - which may be the best of both worlds. Asian students, who make up to half of all intakes, find themselves in an empathetic environment, and European and American students, for their part, find themselves drawn to the lifestyle and location: year-round sunshine, surfing after work and a world-class MBA.
Julian Teicher, director of Monash GSB, says that Australian business schools have not been as successful as they could have been in attracting students from the West. But the recent push by many to get triple accreditation - AACSB, EQUIS and AMBA - and a place in the international rankings may improve their prospects.
Australia, like the rest of the world, has suffered from the downturn in applications since 2003 and the subsequent competition for students and faculty. Brisbane Graduate School of Business at Queensland University of Technology made it into the Financial Times ranking in 2004, only to lose out the following year to institutions in Asia and Latin America.
Australia also experienced a proliferation of schools during the boom of the 1990s. There are now 38 business schools in Australia and about 25,000 MBA students - for a population of 20 million. The variation in quality is huge. "The great majority of students are in part-time programmes taught at night in the local university for the guy who wants to move from sales to marketing," says Speed. "Or you'll have very big classes of international students in a similar style to undergraduate classes."
Many schools are concerned that countries such as China may soon put restrictions on the number of students allowed to study abroad. If this were to happen across a range of Asian countries, many Australian establishments would struggle to survive. Although the loss of revenue is clearly important, most establishments also pride themselves on their culturally diverse environment and their unique Asian connection.
Competition has already forced a few schools to reorganise themselves. Over the past few years, a number of independent business schools have reintegrated back into the faculty of commerce of their main shareholder university. The latest one is the high-profile Australian Graduate School of Management, which has ended its joint venture status with the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales and is now wholly owned by the latter.
Historically, business teaching in Australia has been conducted through university faculties; US-style independent business schools are a more recent phenomenon. Faculties tend to be much larger than business schools and offer a wider range of courses, from undergraduate and masters degrees to diplomas and doctorates.
Roy Green, dean of MGSM, one of the last two independent business schools, along with MBS, says that his school has about 1,800 students compared with 10,000 at the faculty of commerce of Sydney's Macquarie University.
What this restructuring means for students and schools is unclear. Schools that have reintegrated with their founding university, such as AGSM and Monash, argue that it is for the best. But MBS and Macquarie say their independence is what underwrites their reputation: they survive because they provide quality programmes that students are willing to pay for.
Green says there has been a huge increase in the number of specialist courses in subjects such as accounting, HR and supply chain management. Whether it is an outcome of the long separation between business schools and faculties - when faculties competed by developing alternative degrees to MBAs - or a consequence of changing demand, whereby shorter, more specialised courses are increasingly popular, is hard to tell.
Either way, the Australian MBA has a lot to contend with. A recent survey of Australian MBA alumni in BOSS, published in the Australian Financial Review, revealed that given half a chance, most Australians would choose the big US names over their Australian schools. "We aspire to convince Australians not to leave Australia to do their MBA," says Speed. "We don't just want to be the best school in Australia, we want to stand up to international comparison."
Australia's special relationship
Just as business schools have used their proximity to Asia as their trump card, the business community has relied on this unique connection to thrive. From a practical point of view, the fact that Australia is in the same time zone as Asia makes business dealings and travelling for Australians that much easier than for their American or European counterparts.
This proximity - Indonesia is Australia's nearest neighbour by a long way - also has many cultural and economic implications. Tourism is booming in both directions: Bali has been nicknamed Australia's seventh state, while many Singaporeans and Indonesians have bought second homes in Australia. Michael Backman, an expert on Asia and author of several books on the region, says that what most Europeans still refer to as the Far East is, in fact, Australia's "near north". Most Australian managers will experience a stint in Asia over the course of their career.
Australia has become a huge supplier of resources to China, from uranium to natural gas, and China owns several mines in Australia. Rubbish collection in Brisbane is run by the Franco-Singaporean consortium Sita; the sultanate of Brunei owns cattle ranches in the Northern Territory; Singapore company SingTel has just made its biggest acquisition with the purchase of Australia's second biggest telecom company Optus; and many shopping malls are owned by Asian investors.
Large numbers of international students in Australian business schools have also generated an extensive network of Asian alumni, who use Australia as their preferred business platform. Australia has embraced the opportunities this exposure gives it; a large number of expatriates all over Asia are particularly active in accounting and legal services, and in mining operations from Mongolia to Indonesia. The country is also emerging as a new financial centre, capitalising on its expertise, location and language skills. Having successfully developed back-office services, Australia now has more employees working in the financial sector than Hong Kong and Singapore.
There has also been a huge increase in the number of Asian languages taught at school and university. With about 6% of Australia's population of Asian origin, Mandarin, Indonesian, Korean and Vietnamese are replacing Latin and French.
These exchanges have given Australia a privileged understanding of Asia. Teicher of Monash GSB says that Australians appreciate the cultural diversity of the region and are more perceptive about the way it works than most other Western countries. Such close relationships are not without their problems: immigration control is still a fiercely debated issue and the bombings in Bali have created tensions with Indonesia. On the whole, however, the West should take note of Australia's influence in Asia.
THE TOP TIER (in alphabetical order)
Australian Graduate School of Management, University of New South Wales
Brisbane Graduate School of Business, Queensland University of
Macquarie Graduate School of Management (Sydney)
Melbourne Business School
Monash University Graduate School of Business (Melbourne)
OTHER ACCREDITED SCHOOLS
Curtin Business School, Curtin University of Technology (Perth)
International Graduate School of Business, University of South Australia
The Graduate School of Management at the University of Western Australia
University of Queensland Business School (Brisbane).