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Choosing the best business course in the pandemic

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A proliferation of MBA formats — part-time or full-time; on campus or online, or a mix of the two — led to a generation of students switching courses before the start of the academic year.

Uncertainties created by the pandemic and institutions’ ability to teach face to face — or offer meaningful online alternatives beyond Zoom — has made many prospective students rethink their choice of MBA. So what is the best course to choose in the current circumstances?

Ashkan Azar had been teaching English as a second language for nearly six years in Qatar and South Korea, as well as Toronto, where he grew up, when he decided to pursue an MBA to move into a management role in the education sector. “I needed a new challenge,” he says. “But I had no formal management training.”

Azar decided to study in Europe, because schools there offered shorter courses. He chose IE in Madrid (the FT’s partner in Headspring, the executive development venture) for its teaching on entrepreneurship and the diversity of students and professors.

His initial thought was to stay in Canada and join the school’s Global Online MBA, taught mainly online with a few face-to-face class meetings in Madrid. However, after being accepted he decided to switch to IE’s full-time degree, moving to Madrid but also paying higher fees.

Ashkan Azar wanted the in-person contact of an IE MBA rather than online study
Ashkan Azar wanted the in-person contact of an IE MBA rather than online study
Angela Lawrence says students need debate to apply knowledge in practice
Angela Lawrence says students need debate to apply knowledge in practice © Jon Super

“It was worth it. My aim is to study for an MBA which will have the most impact. I’d rather study in [a way where] I will have in-person contact throughout my programme with professors and classmates,” he says, although he admits he has had to economise because of the higher cost.

Full-time study has become attractive for many looking to ride out a post-pandemic spike in unemployment — provided they can afford it. Others calculate that if campus lockdowns push lectures on to web-conferencing platforms such as Zoom, they might as well go for an online course. Durham University Business School in north-east England received 252 applications for the October intake on its online programme, nearly double the number last year.

“The impact of the pandemic is starting to displace a lot of people and they are considering different modes of education,” says Julie Hodges, associate dean for MBA programmes at Durham. “Many individuals who were furloughed from their job started looking to build new capabilities. For them online programmes were more attractive than full-time in that they had some expectation of returning to their jobs,” she says, adding that an online MBA offers flexibility and affordability in unpredictable times.

Staffordshire Business School in central England has been pushing a combined online and on-campus course. “MBA students don’t just come to learn the knowledge, the theories and frameworks, they come for the banter, the spontaneous comparisons of how it works within [their] organisation,” says Angela Lawrence, associate dean. “We have seen that MBA students are more than capable of gaining the knowledge online, but they need discussion and the debate to apply it in practice, which is more easily facilitated in person.”

Age can be a deciding factor for the method of teaching as well as the type of MBA programme, according to Katelyn Stephenson, an admissions director at consultancy MBA Link, which coaches clients to find the best course for them. “This is typically a question asked by our older clients, with more professional experience, and they’re usually trying to decide between a full-time and executive MBA programme,” she says.

“There are a few considerations when weighing these options. First, their motivation for going to business school — specifically how they hope to leverage the degree — is a major factor. If they’re hoping to transition either functionally or in terms of their industry, a traditional full-time MBA programme that provides an internship opportunity between year one and year two may be a better fit.” Internships enable MBA candidates to gain practical experience and begin networking as they make their switch, she says.

Whatever programme students choose, elements of the teaching are likely to have moved online. Although the prospect of Zoom lectures has deterred some potential applicants, schools offering purely online courses are reporting an uptick in interest.

Vlerick Business School in Belgium launched its online MBA two years ago, at slightly lower cost than its executive MBA and full-time study options. Just in time, according to Steve Muylle, academic director of the online MBA, who notes that it has maintained its numbers this year while the EMBA and full-time course cohorts dipped.

“An online MBA really is the ‘have your cake and eat it’ option at this moment,” he says. “Many people may be in a situation where they want to learn new skills and get an MBA, but want to keep their job security and not be unemployed in a volatile market. The online MBA really offers this right now.”


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