MBA Programs Adapt to Stay Open while Keeping Covid Cases Under Control

With vaccines being rolled out in many countries, schools expect a full return to campus teaching, as soon as it is safe to do so

Thousands of MBA applicants will face a hard choice over the next few months: whether to formally confirm their places or defer their acceptance to 2022.

Uncertainty over the coronavirus measures that will be in place for the start of the new academic year dogs business schools. The Covid-19 pandemic entered its second year with continuing disruption to classes that has done little to dampen the rebound in MBA demand. Applicants sailed over the past year to new peaks as applicants balked at the gloomy economy, though the outlook is brightening, but the challenge for schools now is meeting students’ expectations.

Full-time MBA candidates want to come to campus to learn from and network with faculty, students and alumni, but they have been forced to take online classes in many instances, with many students demanding fee refunds after getting buyer’s remorse.

The problem for applicants is that most institutions are not setting out their plans, because they are hesitant to look too far ahead. Many are still coping with the shorter-term shift to online teaching, while in many parts of Europe and North America, schools are having to introduce tougher restrictions as infections rise and governments impose fresh national lockdowns.

In contrast, many institutions across much of Asia are increasing face-to-face teaching because coronavirus cases have been kept at bay.  

A return to normalcy on the horizon?

With vaccines being rolled out in many countries across the world, schools expect a full return to campus teaching, as soon as it is safe to do so. “We don’t yet have that clarity, but are getting there,” says Russ Morgan, senior associate dean for full-time programs at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in the US. “All students, faculty and staff are currently eligible to receive vaccines and many of them have been vaccinated.”

In the meantime, some business schools are facing protests over reductions to the campus component of their MBAs, now taught in a blended format at most western institutions. Hundreds of MBAs at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Illinois signed a petition in February that decries the school’s decision to reduce the in person component to 16 percent of the spring semester, down from about 40 percent in fall, in response to a rise in coronavirus cases.

Morgan at Fuqua expresses sympathy with the higher education sector. “Schools have faced tremendous operational challenges this year and it has been impossible for any school to operate in the same way as they did prior to the pandemic,” he says.

Morgan stresses the importance of transparency and communication with students and applicants, but the situation is changing rapidly. “We have had terms where about half of our classes were available in-person and we also had a three-week period when we needed to move to a 100 percent virtual model,” he says.

Balancing many factors

Many schools have adopted an approach that relies on private coronavirus testing as MBA heads strive to balance the need to protect the welfare of faculty, students and staff with the desire to maintain operations as much as possible. But there is a no clear scientific consensus or guidance from public health agencies. Each school has developed its own protocol through trial and error.

It has not always gone down well. In the US, MBA students at MIT Sloan School of Management expressed frustration in April over a new policy to administer three coronavirus tests a week. The school quickly performed a U-turn after dozens of students took to Slack, the messaging channel, to vent their frustration after a year of disruption to the MBA program.

There is a widespread belief that face-to-face teaching provides higher quality education, though there are benefits to the virtual classroom. China Europe International Business School has decided against offering online classes to students who cannot physically enter China or come to Shanghai. “The MBA is a transformational, full-body experience that is difficult to capture online,” says Shameen Prashantham, MBA director at CEIBS.

The institution has already returned to full campus based lectures. “It is well documented how well the virus has been controlled here in China, so in many ways, it has been business as usual,” he says, albeit with temperature checks, masks and socially distanced lunches. 

Is it has been a very different story in many parts of the western world, where schools are still coping with the switch to online teaching to reduce infection risks.

What are the risks of attending an in-person MBA?

The evidence of the risks of coming to campus is mixed. There have been significant outbreaks at universities, but this may just reflect the higher levels of testing. In February, Harvard Business School reported that 82 students, faculty and staff had tested positive for Covid-19 since the start of the year, though the positivity rate was just 0.16 percent among students and 0.07 percent among staff and professors.  

The virus has spread more widely among people in their twenties than other age groups but the severity of infections is low. “Any substantial gathering of people poses a risk,” says Prashantham at CEIBS.

In the UK, Cambridge Judge Business School has resumed some in-person teaching after a break between January and April because of the national lockdown. The school has taken a number of measures to protect the health of students and staff, including a one-way system for stairs and lifts, hand sanitizer, physical distancing, and temperature checks.

Alongside this, the school has held online classes. Conrad Chua, executive director of the Cambridge MBA, expects the blended model to endure even once the crisis abates. “What we have learned about online teaching during the pandemic won’t simply be forgotten once things return to some degree of normalcy; instead it will be used to enhance the learning experience,” he says.

Andrea Masini, associate dean for the MBA at HEC Paris, agrees, pointing out that online classes offer more flexibility for students and help draw high-profile guest speakers such as busy chief executives. “While the MBA will remain a residential program with a great emphasis on the in-person experience, it can certainly be complemented and enriched by digital pedagogy,” he says.

The French government has authorized in-person courses at universities, but with strict regulations including physical distancing and mandatory masks. HEC Paris has applied a health protocol to prevent the arrival of the virus on campus, and to contain transmission, based on preventing, testing, contact tracing and isolating.

Despite the uncertainty, Masini sees an upside to the upheaval: “This crisis has been a lesson in leadership for all of us,” he says. “While students want certainty, the ability to adapt to ever changing sanitary constraints and governmental decisions has become a critical skill. I expect students who were able to demonstrate resilience and the ability to adapt, will be in high demand once they hit the job market.”

He remains cautiously optimistic for the coming academic year. “With the progressive deployment of the vaccination campaign, we expect courses to return to normal in September 2021, with full utilization of our classroom capacity,” he says. “Needless to say, should that be impossible, the model we have already deployed will guarantee academic continuity.”

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