17 minute read

Long-term changes to business education

In the fourth episode of season two of the BlueSky Education Thinking Podcast, BlueSky’s Stephanie Mullins and Kerry Ruffle, alongside International BizEd Guru, Matt Symonds, discuss long-term changes to business education as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also in the episode, Steph is joined by Hanna-Leena Pesonen, Dean of Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics, as well as BlueSky Education’s Jonny Stone and Kate Mowbray, and Jonathan Simon, Director of Marketing and Communications at the Telfer School of Management.


Matt: Businesses education without a sense of change? I don't think I've ever seen an industry that's not constantly been thinking about how it will transform. 15 to 20 years ago, we were talking about the demise of the MBA. And yet, here it is still going strong. Its Executive Education season, there are new competitors coming in from third party consulting, and yet Exec Ed has been an absolute lifeblood for business schools. And now of course we have a pandemic. Schools have scrambled and, to my mind, scrambled incredibly effectively to change their delivery. And they start to think about the long term.

So there are many, many different areas to this, how schools are providing delivery, how both students and staff are adapting to the virtual delivery of those different courses. And, of course, how that whole interaction even at the campus building itself is being truly transformed from currently empty classrooms, given lockdowns around the world, to perhaps a different role, where it plays this interactive hub, and provides the sort of connectivity that really is at the heart of the business school experience going beyond some of those core courses, accounting and others, and that can be delivered offline, and providing the sort of interaction between executives between young masters students. So, there are so many different ways that we can look at this challenge of both the short and the long term changes that business schools face.

Kerry: I mean, I think it's very interesting that business schools in particular have been extremely hard hit and face a huge challenge from the coronavirus pandemic. These are institutions that make their name and promote themselves on their internationality, their ability to have a classroom full of people from around the world, from different professions, different nationalities, and to bring all that together to allow their students to get the best out of their education. So with countries around the world on lockdown, and travel bans, and people being cautious about where they make their next steps, it's a huge hurdle for business schools to overcome. But, fortunately, the blueprints for that were already in place with the shift that many institutions have begun to make in the world of online learning. And I think it's inspirational to see how quickly schools have been able to adapt, and change, and how willing they have been to push funding and new ideas, innovation into the online capacity of their delivery. And it was only, what, 5-10 years ago that online education, particularly online MBAs was seen to be something of a lesser degree, a lesser standard, it was something that a lot of applicants wouldn't necessarily pick as their first choice.

And it's interesting now how that has completely flipped. The online MBA in particular has been growing and learning and developing and becoming more popular. And suddenly, it's become something that is an essential choice for many if they want to get the very best out of their education. And for those schools that over the last decade have invested significantly, in their online capacities and their online capabilities, now is really their time to shine.

Steph: And it's interesting because business schools all face very similar challenges right now. But in reality, they are all very different. They are funded differently. They're led by very different personalities. But really, essentially, the challenges caused by Coronavirus are pretty similar across the board. It's interesting to talk to many people in the industry about what that means for them. So we went out and we spoke to Deans all over the world, in Finland and Canada, in the UK, to find out what this really means for them.

Kerry: Over the next three episodes of this podcast, we are going to be looking specifically at the long term changes to business education. Both looking at the world around us and how technology has changed how we approach learning, but also, of course, we can't avoid the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and what that is going to mean for the future of education. So Steph, in this episode, who are we going to hear from?

Steph: So we're kicking off this episode with Hanna-Leena Pesonen. She's the Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics. And then we have our very own PR consultants, Jonny Stone and Kate Mowbray and they're talking about how Deans can really use their platform in times of crisis to provide stability and reassurance for all of their key stakeholders. We then finish off with Jonathan Simon. We heard from him earlier on in the series, but he's coming back to tell us all about what the changes mean for his institution and more at Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa. So, we will begin with Hanna.

Now, what changes have you seen in the industry so far?

Hanna: You could say everything has changed. So, recruitment of students, teaching, working, doing research – not so much in research in itself – but the mobility of researchers, as well as students. So everything in some way or another has been affected.

Steph: Totally. Do you think this will be long term? Or do you think it's going to be short term, and we're going see things resuming as normal?

Hanna: When it comes to the pandemic, I'm not the person to speculate on that. But somehow, I do have a feeling that it will take some time to get back to normal. What it will mean to ‘go back to normal’, whenever that happens, whether it's in half a year, a year, or even more, I somehow think that what we’ve learned – well, we were forced to do – some of that will stay. Because it has brought many, many good new things as well. Everything connected to the distance, for instance, you and me now talking to each other online today.

Steph: I think we're so used now to talking through video communications. I don't think that'll change either. And I quite enjoy it now.

Hanna: Me too, I have to say, yeah.

Steph: I think it's an improvement on just talking on the phone actually being able to see someone's face and read their expressions.

Hanna: That's true. Yeah, you're right. So even a small thing, such as going from phone calls to something digital and so being able to see the face.

Steph: Exactly. Do you think there'll be more virtual event?

Hanna: Probably, yes. I think we will go back to some physical events, because that's something that I see people are missing, the actual meeting. Then having time to sit down, enjoying lunch or dinner whatsoever, and just having a chat. That's something you don't do online. Getting to know people, and then also exchanging ideas, which you don't do in a short meeting like this. And I can say, I'm missing that to myself. So I hope we will have some events, at least, but maybe less than what we used to have.

Steph: I agree. I'm the same as you. I miss being able to sit down over lunch at a conference, and chat to people informally and learn more about them and what they do. And it's interesting that you think there'll be a bit more of a blending between impacts and events, and then virtual events? That will be the same for teaching. Do you think there'll be more blended learning in that respect?

Hanna: Absolutely. I'm sure it will. It will continue in some kind of hybrid. There will be more blended learning in the future. We were forced to try it, and it seems to be working. And in many cases, it has been useful. It has certainly increased the flexibility that many of the students were already asking for. So for instance, if I think from the Finnish perspective, where our students actually have more flexibility than in many other countries in terms of the time for their degree – we are more flexible in that. If it's a two year programme, well, you can take three so on. So that means that many of the students, when they are two years, finalising their degrees already are working part- or even full- time towards the end of the degree. So, for those people especially, from whom we have been getting requests over the years, for instance, when they move to another city, and so they then find it difficult to commute if they are also working. So now we were able to offer them online options, and actually, which was kind of funny, we realised quite soon that, when we more or less over a weekend turned into fully online, we started to get questions from some of those students in the work life already saying, ‘now it seems that I would be able to take the course I didn't register for earlier because I thought that I would not be able to be there in person. Can I still join?’

I don't have any statistics from the spring, we will collect that a little bit later. But it seems that we got some more studies completed by this. Because of the more opportunities that we had for flexibility, we were able to offer that to students.

Steph: Definitely. And do you think that you'll continue the flexibility from going forward?

Hanna: Certainly, to some degree, at least. In our case, we won't go 100% online. We still appreciate and value the personal contact. It has a role to play, like we said with the events. The same is true in teaching. But, for sure, we will go for or some kind of blended? I suppose.

Steph: I suppose it answers what a lot of students are asking for. They appreciate the face-to-face learning, but then they also appreciate the flexibility that comes with just online.

Hanna: Yes, exactly.

Steph: Awesome. And how are you finding student recruitment in terms of bringing new students in? Do you think that's been heavily impacted by the pandemic? Do you think methods of recruiting students are going to change? How do you see that working?

Hanna: From the Finnish perspective, I think it will be the same for all the other countries as well. What has been affected are the international markets. We have some international programmes. And for those students that we have recruited from outside of Finland, they now have difficulties entering the country or leaving their own country, whichever, or both. I don't have the exact sort of the final figures how it will look like in the autumn, but we are committed to offering an online version for all students now and for the autumn term. Especially for the purposes of those students who are not able to arrive to Finland, or to Jyväskylä. But how many students we are losing? It’s too early to say.

Steph: I think that's the case for a lot of business schools that it’s still a time when they don't quite know what impact it will have on their institution.

Hanna: That's true. And then, of course, for many universities around the world, it's also a huge, huge financial issue. In our case, that's not such a huge problem, because we only have a certain number of international programmes where there are tuition fees for the students. For the Finnish students there is no tuition fee, we instead get the financing from the Finnish government, the Ministry of Education. So it doesn't change that much financially for us. But as far as I know, many universities are really struggling now.

Steph: That's a great strength for your institution to have.

Hanna: So myself, as a dean, I’m lucky.

Steph: Really?

Hanna: In this position? Yes. Not having to worry about that. Absolutely. At the moment, yes.

Steph: That’s an excellent position to be in. Not everyone is able to say that.

Hanna: Of course, then we also do have concerns about the future years. What will happen with the economy of the country as a whole. Because the funding of the universities will also be affected. In a couple of years, too. But immediately, there is no such issue.

Steph: Well, it's really interesting all of these things that that we're learning about. And I wondered if there is anything that you'd like our listeners to think about, or you would like to speak about that we haven't touched upon yet?

Hanna: It’s a very general thought. Something I have been thinking in the past couple of weeks over and over again… this was a huge change, which we could not have planned for. And if we were able to do that, we can do so many things. I’m coming back to the idea that, personally as a leader, universities as a whole, and the whole society, we seem to be able to do a lot in a very short time. Maybe we can be brave? Make some changes, whatever they are.

Steph: That's so true. And what a beautiful way to look at it. If we can be resilient in this, and make it through such a crisis, as we have, and be as strong as we have been, then think about what we could do.

Fantastic. Well, I think that would be a beautiful note to end on. So thank you so much for joining us.

Kerry: Hanna’s discussion highlights a really interesting point. Though the Coronavirus has radically changed the way we live, we work and study, it's also brought opportunity. And whether that's students accessing an online programme that they previously thought was out of their reach, or an institution showing its resilience, and doing what a business schools does best to think to the future. Kate Mowbray and Jonny Stone from BlueSky Education have been helping Trinity Business School in Ireland share their forward-thinking on a global stage.

Jonny: They're a massive Business School in the Republic of Ireland, and part of a really well respected university in Trinity College Dublin, so we always knew the difference we were going to make was going to be on a global level. It's going beyond the borders of the Republic of Ireland. And they've got so much content to work with. They're really forward thinking Business School. Looking at their Dean in particular, he’s at the heart of that.

First and foremost, he's Professor Andrew Burke – he’s really still got his hand in when it comes to academic research. But beyond that, they've got such amazing thought leadership, and they've had really impressive rankings results this year. So we've had so much to work with. In terms of the kind of coverage we've worked with, specifically with Andrew, it's been all about how, BizEd and business is going to change because of COVID. Andrew has said from the beginning that we as a society have got to really reset the way that we measure success in the business world. He always refers to the Frankenstein economy. It's all about profits, and lean workforces and supply chains. But, in reality, it's not about that, it's about creating society for all of us.

Looking at Trinity in general, they've got really socially-aware alumni. You see it first and foremost in their research. So we've been pushing on all fronts, as we do at BlueSky. We take a holistic approach to things: we push the research, the thought leadership, and we've achieved some amazing results in the likes of global tier one publications like Forbes, as well as accrediting bodies.

Steph: Fantastic, and you've had some brilliant feedback on all of your work. Kate, I think it was one point that the Dean made to you, that would be really interesting for us to mention.

Kate: Yes. So when he took us on as a PR agency, he expected us to get some media coverage and to keep investors happy. And I think he's been overwhelmed with what we've done. He’s said that it’s helped with marketing, accreditations, like I mentioned, I don’t think he really expected any of that. It’s because of this that he can prove to the rest of the university ‘look, we spend this money because we're not just getting PR – we're getting so much more than that.’ And I think that it's just so important. And I think a pandemic it's more important than ever to get those interesting stories across.

Steph: Definitely, I think, impact that we've had, he's been really surprised that even to the point of helping with accreditation, because we work with the publications. And being seen in those publications has an impact when they're coming to reaccreditation. It's fantastic and being able to prove that they're engaged in the community. It's just brilliant and being able to help with such impact is such a big strength of being at BlueSky and from working with the Dean. And often we're surprised how many Deans are active researchers and that they have their own topics and expertise they want to talk about. But they also like to talk about the industry and about business education. And this is a really good way for deans get their profiles out, which would you agree, Jonny?

Jonny: 100%. I think one thing that every business school and every Dean must realise is that the Dean is an extension of the brand. They are an extension of the brand both on a day-to-day basis with internal stakeholders, but also with external stakeholders at events and in the media. So you really need to embrace that. You can't shy away from it. First and foremost, are career academics, or at least most are anyway. And so it's a great opportunity for you keep your hand in. It's great seeing leading academics at your business school securing coverage, but there's nothing wrong with a Dean wants to secure their own coverage. And so I think they should really be embracing the media, particularly now more than ever, because I think one thing we've really learned from this pandemic is the value of higher and business education. Now is the time really to really embrace PR, embrace the media and share your expertise and your insights.

Steph: Absolutely. And I know there's so much that both of you could have spoken about today. And it's interesting to hone in on one particular aspect that has gone really well. So thank you so much, both, for sharing your insights with us.

Kerry: So Jonny said that now is the time to embrace PR. And of course, it's not surprising that one of our own PR consultants would have this perspective. But what are the schools saying? Next, we continue our discussion with Jonathan Simon, Director of Marketing and Communications at the Telfer School of Management in Canada. He believes the schools which act to voice their ideas beyond their own networks now are the ones that will be seen as the leaders in the years to come.

Jonathan: Luckily, most schools right now are still forward thinking and budgets aren't really getting slashed, because we don't know what's happening. And then, I suspect things will change in the next couple of months, and then it will be a time when certain schools will cut budgets related to marketing, recruitment. But others will say,’ No, we're going to find other ways to do it.’ I feel like the schools that are forward thinking that are putting their efforts still in putting out their vision, putting out their brand, recruiting students, recruiting donors, and seeing how this is actually an opportunity for all of us to expand, those schools are going to be seen and looked at five years from now as the ones that were forward thinking and, in the face of uncertainty, saw the opportunity and pushed forward.

Steph: I totally agree. And it's interesting to see how many people I've spoken with are saying now's not the time to pull back, we need to continue and they're being really innovative and finding new ways. They're saying, ‘okay, we can't physically recruit students at events. So how do we reach them? Okay, we need marketing initiatives, we need advertising, need PR, we need to reach those people, we still have those goals.’

Jonathan: Everybody has those goals. I'm so happy to see within the whole education community how, even though we are traditionally seen as a slow moving industry with a lot of politics and things involved in making those types of strides, when the pandemic hit, how quickly many, many schools, almost all of them, were able to switch almost in weeks to online learning, to webinar based events. It was across the board, I saw it with so many institutions, that just embraced platforms, and teachers that had taught a certain way for many, many years, embrace the new challenges that were set forth and see this as a learning opportunity for themselves to do something. So I was just very proud to see that. I still think we have some ways to go in terms of trying to get all of our brands and offerings out to the world to see what a business school education can do, and how we can pivot. But overall, I was very excited to see a lot of the changes that happened, sometimes overnight, across communities of universities.

Steph: Yes, I agree. And it's been wonderful. It's hear people's stories about how literally overnight, or over a weekend, academics, faculties and staff have been able to turn their teaching online. And they've invested in new cameras and new equipment to do it really well from home. And people have responded, and the amount of flexibility I think has shown a lot of institutions and a lot of students actually that actually ‘I love this flexibility, I love being able to learn from home’. It's opened up a whole new realm of possibility for a lot of institutions.

Jonathan: Yeah, and I think a lot of the fear that institutions had pre-pandemic about going online, hearing stories about all types of issues that could happen. All of a sudden, they were forced to do that, they had no choice. And they realised that some of the fears we had weren't that scary at all. Some we still have to deal with, but it's like pushing yourself closer and closer to a cliff, and then somebody just pushing you off – you're going to have to find that parachute and survive. And I think, for the most part, institutions quickly pivoted. Now we're faced with, again, what's going to happen with enrolment. And so that's a next phase of uncertainty. But I think a lot of people, at least the colleagues I talked to across many universities are saying, ‘well, we we've already survived one thing, we didn't have a choice, now we have some planning to do. So let's. We have no choice but to do it, and to adapt.’ So for the most part, they're just pushing forward with their plans to ensure that the students get the best education possible, that the professors can still conduct their research in the ways that they can, and they looked at the new tools that are out there and just kind of use those to continue pushing forward.

Steph: Yeah, absolutely. And you're right, this is something that no one could have prepared for, no one could have planned for this at all.

Jonathan: And even if they had, everyone would have laughed at them. I mean, I'm sure there were academics around the world, that have been screaming for years that this could happen, that we should prepare now that we should be running around campuses telling people, ‘we need to update equipment, we need to do this.’ I know they exist. And now those people are beating their chests saying I told you so. But at the same time, those same people are helping their colleagues. I've seen that they're not saying, ‘well, I told you. I'm taking care of myself.’ They're saying, ‘how can I help our colleagues move quickly online? How do I help the administration?’ I think everybody would say 10 years ago that we knew that we would have to move in an online environment, eventually education would have to, but nobody would think it would be at this pace. And that it could be done at this level, at this quality, I think is a testament to how quickly academics can pivot when forced to.

Steph: I think a lot of academics have been surprised at how effective it has been, and just how much they've accomplished. And if they can do that so quickly, what can be done in future? There's so much possibility.

Jonathan: Yes. Personally, I teach in a digital marketing class, and one of my offerings that I’ve done every semester is I bring in guest speakers to talk about their day-to-day work and what they do, for two reasons. One, I want students to see what it's like, even though I do it on a daily basis, it's not as up to speed as maybe some of these other people in start-ups. Also, it's a good networking opportunity. I found with the pandemic, now I'm not limited to people that come in my classroom in Ottawa, I've had people dial in from Santa Monica and across. So now it's opening up well, can I get Digital Marketer experts across the world and bring this offering to my classroom? That never existed before. That was that was a challenge. I probably could have done it. But it was scary for me to figure out how do I work this equipment and do it and now we're on what six to seven video calls a day, minimum. To do this right here. When you send a message it was it wasn't even a thought in my mind that this could be hard. It was just something that we do on a regular basis. Now it's just going to be recorded, and we're going to move on doing these types of things.

Steph: It's so true. It's funny that you say this because for the first season of our podcast, I went around and I visited people and I took a zoom mic with me and I interviewed them in person. I'd done a couple online, but I thought you have to do it in person. Now, it's completely made me rethink all of that. And I love doing it over video being able to speak to people anywhere in the world, it does open up completely new opportunities.

Jonathan: Yeah. Before it was like, ‘do we have the right mics? Do we have the right equipment? Is the lighting right?’ Now everything is pretty much accessible. And we've quickly learned how to use the equipment that we have in front of us to turn things into content that didn't exist before. And it's kind of exciting.

Steph: Definitely. It's definitely an exciting future, and we're going to see who's going lead the way.

I really love what Jonathan says about moving forward and taking brave opportunities. And even if a project scares us, but it has amazing possibilities, we should go ahead and do it. And I love this theme of starting to look at the opportunities that the coronavirus pandemic has actually prompted us to consider.

Matt: It's interesting, isn't it, that any potential MBA or masters students themselves who are looking to take that leap of faith and move out of their comfort zone. That's what the business school experience offers. And I guess now that the pandemic is holding up a mirror to the business schools themselves and saying, how are you going to seize this opportunity?

Kerry: I mean, business schools have been teaching students for decades, the importance of being able to grow and develop and adapt their mindsets and be flexible. And now really is the opportunity for schools to practice what they preach in their own offering, to be more flexible in what they provide in how they deliver it, in who they're reaching out to and how they you know, they measure their success and their growth in their progression. And we're going to be looking at this in a bit more detail in our next episode. Steph, who will we be speaking to in Episode Five?

Steph: So in our next episode, we'll be continuing with our fantastic Dean interviews. We'll be kicking off with Dana Brown. She is the Dean of the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University. And we have Angus Laing from Lancaster University Management School discussing some of the changes that we really hope to see.

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