The future of business education between irrelevance and reinvention

What makes a good education? There are possibly endless answers to this question. But what’s definite is that the answer today would be drastically different than it was a year ago. As COVID-19 slammed shut most of the world’s higher education institutes, all scrambled to adapt to the new norm of distant and digital learning. Some did it better than others, but in all cases, the pandemic brought about unprecedented challenges and is set to have a lasting impact on how education is perceived and delivered.

Business Schools, on the other hand, had their specific sets of challenges. Bringing together prominent academics and professionals from across the world, from Atlanta toCairo to Bangkok, is this year’s edition of the Business Forum by the AUC School of Business, and together they set out to answer some of the most pressing questions on the disruption and future of business education.

What happened in 2020?

“One of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic was the industry of higher education and business schools,” recounted Sherif Kamel, dean at the AUC School of Business. “Commencements were canceled, campuses closed, budgets cuts, and traveling suspended.”

“We pride ourselves as Egypt’s global university, but suddenly we couldn’t get international students to come on board,” adds Kamel.

“Our staff and faculty were struggling,” said Baniyelme David Zoogah, founding executive at the Africa Academy of Management. “They also had difficulty because because the students did not have the infrastructure to attend the classes.”

Not only that, but as digital literacy and technology infrastructure suddenly became basic infrastructures of delivering an education, some felt the pressure more than the others.

“We’re in the southern part of Atlanta where the socioeconomic background of people is quite low,” explained Jacob Chacko, dean of Clayton State University’s College of Business. “And what we have seen is that, as always, this disruption has unfairly affected the lower socio economic strata of the community.”

However, many predicted the pandemic to shed light on human qualities that have otherwise taken a backseat.

“Around 10 months ago, there was a lot of discussion about how our experience was going to transform us, and in particular, that we would rediscover kindness and cooperation; be more of a forward thinking and optimistic people when we come through all of this,” said Jonathan Liebenau, technology management professor at the London School of Economics.

Challenges and breakthroughs

But theories and predictions don’t always work, explained Liebenau, adding that testing real-life experience should be our guiding light to an actual disruption of business education systems. He believes they’re merely going through a “disturbance,” calling for rethinking everything we take for granted about the content of business education.

“I think we can go through a list of standard management theories that we drag out for our first lessons and think about them a bit, because they do have to stand up to the experiences that have made businesses so self-conscious.”

And that’s exactly what Debra Leighton, Business School Impact System (BSIS) at the European Foundation for Management Development, who surveyed deans and stakeholders at 900 schools of businesses around the world over the past year on what disruption had meant to them.

As defined by the survey, the dimensions of the disruption are financial impact, educational impact, economic and business development, intellectual impact, regional business, ecosystems, societal and image impact.

“Almost half of our sample said that the revenue had fallen and a third said that the student numbers had fallen most significantly in executive education, where private business schools reported up to 46 percent fall in executive education students,” revealed Leighton. “There was particularly significant ongoing pressure on student fees as students may perceive that they’re getting something different and arguably cheaper than what they’re actually getting with remote delivery.”

One of the biggest external challenges facing business schools today was identified “around government higher education policy and specific requirements connected to certain campus closures,” added Leighton.

Furthermore, an existential challenge facing business education lied in the insights of, Ahmed Abdel Wahab, managing director at Egyptian German Automotive Co.; “I’m seeing a clear trend that certification for graduates is getting more and more to be done by companies the likes of Google, Amazon, which are giving certificates now that enable people to enter the workforce.”

That would be a challenge irrelevant of the pandemic, but who said that business schools weren’t already struggling before?

“Prior to the pandemic, business schools had already been facing challenges and trying to keep up with the changing landscape of the economy and the business world,” said Nelly ElZayat, cofounder and director of Newton Education Services and advisor to Egypt’s Minister of Education.

“I think relevance is the name of the game […] We see clear shift in student interests, and I would argue that this is again due to relevance; there’s a shift towards areas such as Fintech, digital finance and now public health – the sciences where the pharmaceutical world meets the business world.”

Business schools going forward

And relevant they should be. However what does that mean in today’s world of wildly ranging student interests and the fierce competition for their time and attention?

“We’re going to see much more focus on personalized learning; customized learning at the individual level, and technology is going to allow us to do that programmatically,” explained Timothy S. Mescon executive vice president and chief officer for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for AACSB International. “Courses, modules will be shorter, faster, and more intensive. And I and I think this is going to be the way of the world moving forward.”

What’s more, as predicted Amanda Line, Partner at PwC’s Academy Middle East, that quality will be front and center.

“I also believe there will be very much a flight to quality, because let’s be honest; there’s been a lot of very bad online learning out there; and some of our children have experienced that at school; people are now much more careful before they sign up for an online course to understand what really is the quality of that course.”
A human quality that, once and again, made it to the forefront will also be in great demand.

“Resilience. A lot of people think of resilience as bouncing back. I think it’s more than that. Resilience is about bouncing up. So he’s coming back better than you were before, better suited to the new environment,” asserted Ian Fenwick, director at Sasin School of Management.

There are three things that make up the quality of resilience, according to Fenwick, one is an entrepreneurial mindset, the ability to try new things quickly and not be too upset when they fail and just pick up and try again. The other thing which I’m starting to realize is extremely important is diversity; the more diverse our faculty, the more diverse staff, the more diverse the programs, the more chancesthat there’s something in there that’s going to work.”

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