The Pandemic Has Changed How Business Schools Operate for Good
Updated: Aug 21
Less travel, smaller class sizes, and blended recruiting will stick around. Business schools tend to be steeped in tradition—focused on the long term and slow to respond to societal trends. The pandemic turned that on its head, forcing institutions to tear up the rule book to ensure classes could go ahead amid lockdowns and travel restrictions.
“What the pandemic has done is free up space for innovation,” says Kathy Harvey, associate dean of the MBA and executive degrees at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. Some of the adjustments are likely to stick.
The MBA program at Oxford Saïd has cut its class sizes in half, from 80 students to 40. It was initially a response to the need for social distancing in physical spaces. Now the school has recognized the smaller class size also encourages more interactive discussion. “That’s in line with how Oxford sees teaching, which is very much conversation- and discussion-based, and very interactive,” Harvey says. Groups will be redrawn throughout the year so MBAs meet everyone in their program, and elements of teaching that moved to the asynchronous online presentation will be kept to allow students to come better prepared for conversations. “We found a better way, and we don’t anticipate that we’ll stop,” she says.
Martina Sokolikova, who’s studying her MBA at Oxford Saïd, at first found the half-empty classrooms intimidating. “However, soon we realized that smaller classes brought new opportunities for equality and quality of interaction,” she says. Professors had a better overview of individual participation and thus could easily identify and engage students who weren’t active or confident to speak but whose contribution was often valuable from a peer-learning perspective, she says. It also helped students struggling with the pandemic broker better connections, she says.
Waiving the GMAT
Several schools, including MIT Sloan and Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, have offered MBA applicants the opportunity to apply for a waiver that would allow them to skip the Graduate Management Admission Test, or GMAT, for the last two application cycles, including for classes starting September 2021. The pandemic had closed GMAT administration centers, making it impossible for some candidates to take the test. MIT Sloan hasn’t announced its decision on testing going forward, while Darden has committed to continue with test flexibility.
Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University had temporarily waived the GMAT and is beginning to reinstate it. Hult International Business School is taking a different approach: The mid-ranked school, which has campuses on three continents, is doing away with its GMAT requirement entirely. Others are undecided. McCombs School of Business, Communications & Marketing at the University of Texas has yet to decide whether its MBA class of 2024—which starts next year—will need to supply GMAT results. The Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University is also uncertain whether applicants to its Master of Global Management—its equivalent of the MBA—will need to supply scores. “We’re exploring what we’re thinking about what the future holds,” says Sanjeev Khagram, dean at Thunderbird. “We haven’t made a final determination.”
Traditionally, the Asia School of Business in Kuala Lumpur has organized student trips to Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai—key cities for business on the continent. Budget limitations meant students would visit only seven to 10 employers on a two-and-a-half-day tour. The shift to online visits during the pandemic has given students more access to the rest of the world, says Sean Ferguson, associate dean at the school. A virtual Dubai trip was spread over multiple weeks because of the flexibility of Zoom, allowing students to make far more virtual visits.
Even before the pandemic, employers were starting to shift the recruitment process online. In September 2019, PricewaterhouseCoopers started digital interviews for MBAs looking for work, including 5,000 full-time hires, 4,000 interns, and 4,000 to 6,000 experienced hires. “We obviously couldn’t physically go to every campus in the country,” says Rod Adams, the company’s talent acquisition leader. “To go into virtual interviews allowed us to broaden our reach and level the playing field.” That choice paid off during the pandemic: all of the company’s newest hires from business schools were interviewed virtually. Post-pandemic, Adams envisages the company keeping about 30% of its interviews virtual.
While more meetings and hiring may happen online in the future, trips probably won’t go away entirely. “When overseas travel comes back, I think trips will,” says Saïd Business School’s Harvey. Dairon Reijna, an MBA student at neighboring Oxford Brookes University, hopes the trips will return. “What I feel has been negative from the pandemic is that international opportunities are no longer available,” he says.
The move online has been a silver lining for business schools in Asia. “It’s helped level the playing field in recruitment,” says Nicole Tee, director of graduate studies at National University Singapore. She cites markets such as Brazil, from which the school traditionally wouldn’t recruit because of the travel time. “It’d take two days to get there and two days to come back,” she says. Now, NUS has been able to organize region- and country-specific recruitment events targeted by language and time zone, featuring panel speakers and alumni from that area.
NUS stopped visiting physical fairs to market its programs when the pandemic hit. While Tee envisages the school returning to some post-pandemic, she says the school will become more selective about which fairs it attends. “Even pre-Covid, I think most schools were getting skeptical about spending a huge part of their budget on physical fairs,” she says.
With the pandemic bringing uncertainty to so many facets of life, schools are offering more flexibility. A less structured MBA is meant to accommodate those who can’t afford to take one or two years to complete a program in one go. For the 2020-21 academic year, Esade Business School in Spain introduced a 21-month MBA option, alongside its 12-, 15-, and 18-month choices. “We should continuously think about the ways in which we can build a much looser structure,” says Luis Vives, deputy dean for programs at Esade. “Students have the opportunity to build the program that is going to be best for them.”
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