Business schools all over the world are racing to adapt their programs to deal with the rapid spread of coronavirus, also known as Covid-19, a respiratory illness that can prove fatal. Some schools have been forced to close entirely, while others have had to cancel study trips, postpone lectures by prominent guests, or switch face-to-face courses to online.
Schools in China are closed altogether, with some offering classes remotely. Some staff have been stranded abroad, unable to get home for several weeks due to travel bans. Business schools all over the world have canceled student immersion trips to China. Many U.S. schools are now scheduling admission interviews with students via Skype or Zoom instead of in person. Wharton, for example, has schedule more virtual team-based-discussions this year than normal to help offset the fact that the school’s admission officials won’t be able to travel to as many hubs as normal.
Outside China, the country most heavily reliant on Chinese students is Australia, where many course participants had not arrived for the first term of 2020 before the travel ban kicked in. Some students have taken drastic action, traveling to third countries and then on to Australia to get around the ban. The University of Melbourne has offered a support package of up to AUS$7,500 for students who have incurred extra expenses because of the travel restrictions. Many U.S. business schools, of course, heavily depend on Chinese students for specialty master’s programs.
The worst-affected business school in Europe has been SDA Bocconi, in Milan. Following Europe’s biggest outbreak of the virus so far, in northern Italy, the regional administration closed all schools and public buildings. Bocconi took drastic action to prevent students from losing valuable course time, switching full-time MBA classes online for the duration of the shutdown.
“We decided to make the change on Sunday afternoon, for the Monday morning, and respected the teaching schedule, so it is business as usual, essentially,” says Francesco Daveri, program director of Bocconi’s full-time MBA. “As a temporary arrangement, students have been very happy about it. We are working week-to-week, because we still don’t know when the suspension will end.” A course taught by Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Spence has been postponed, however. “We assumed the students didn’t want to be taught by him online,” Daveri says.
B-SCHOOLS DO MORE THAN BRACE FOR IMPACT
Bocconi has postponed a proposed study trip to Israel because the authorities there have cancelled flights from northern Italy, and it is unclear whether it can be rearranged within the packed MBA schedule. The school also has cancelled participation in overseas recruitment fairs for the foreseeable future, according to a spokesperson.
Elsewhere in Europe, HEC Paris issued a statement that coronavirus has impacted “students arriving from China, students who were supposed to move to China for academic exchanges during the spring, and students or interns working in China.” Following advice from the French health ministry, HEC has postponed all non-essential travel for students, researchers, teachers, or administrative staff to China. HEC also says it is watching for any “stigma” developing on campus against Asian students.
INSEAD, which has campuses in Paris and Singapore, says that it has been most affected by the decision by the Graduate Management Admission Council, which runs the GMAT and other tests, to cancel all GMAT testing in China until the crisis has passed. INSEAD says it has become more flexible with deferral requests, extended payment plans, and application deadlines, and also has given conditional acceptances pending the results of GRE or GMAT tests. The school also is holding more video than face-to-face interviews, and numerous marketing events have switched from face-to-face to online.
In the UK, London Business School has set up a “school-wide working group of senior decision-makers” as well as a dedicated FAQ page on its website, while a couple of hours to the northwest, Warwick Business School has re-arranged some study trips. A full-time MBA visit to Shanghai at the end of March, for example, has been relocated to Helsinki. The school also is monitoring the situation in Milan where trips are planned later in the year. “At the moment it is business as usual and the business school and university are operating normally,” Warwick said in a statement. At Alliance Manchester Business School, meanwhile, workshop residencies in Hong Kong and Shanghai scheduled for March and April have been cancelled, and the school is giving students the option to take classes online or postpone them to the next semester. Others have been offered the chance to extend their MBA by six months. At the moment, classes in Manchester, Dubai, and São Paulo are expected to go ahead as planned.
ONLINE’S TIME TO SHINE
Many smaller UK schools rely heavily on Chinese students; these are having to adapt to significant disruption. Nottingham University Business School was the first UK school to have a Chinese campus, but its outpost in Ningbo is currently closed, and students who were planning to spend time there have had to put their plans on hold.
While the next academic year — which starts in September — feels far away, many UK schools run lengthy language courses of up to 40 weeks to prepare students for undergraduate or postgraduate business studies, and Covid-19 may play havoc with their schedules. The longer courses have already been impacted because Chinese students are unable to take English-language tests in China. Looking forward, “there is a worry about how mobile Chinese students will be,” one school’s spokesperson says.
Schools hope the crisis passes quickly, but industry-watchers suggest that there could be long-term impacts. “The really interesting thing is the rapid improvement of the online provision,” says Andrew Crisp of business school consultancy Carrington Crisp. “If students have a good experience, this could be a turning point for online education.” He adds that schools that rely heavily on Chinese students might see this as a wake-up call to widen their recruitment net. If nothing else, the coronavirus crisis is a great real-time case study about the interconnectedness of the 21st-century economy.