If you’ve already been offered a place on an MBA or other master’s program to start this autumn in a UK business school, or are considering a late application, there is only one question that matters: how will your once-in-a-lifetime experience be affected by COVID-19?
The UK has dropped its COVID-19 alert level from 4 to 3, shops are starting to re-open and it is generally believed that social distancing rules will soon be relaxed. Some sort of normality is slowly returning. But on campus, this year’s students will have a very different experience to previous ones.
Physically, schools will look different, with one-way systems, smaller class sizes, and less watercooler interaction. Rooms have been repurposed, and there will be more frequent disinfectant cleaning.
Big careers fairs will not happen, at least in the next few months, and overseas study trips could be canceled or held virtually – which is arguably not quite the same. New electives are being offered to compensate, and ever-keen alumni have swung into action to offer projects to replace canceled ones.
LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL TO OPEN ONLINE FIRST, THEN MOVE TO A HYBRID MODEL
Generally, schools are offering “blended” courses – a mix of in-person, small group work and on-line classes. London Business School plans to reopen its campus on Sept. 7, though LBS will initially run online classes before moving to a hybrid model of teaching two weeks later on Sept. 21. “We understand that some students studying at our London campus may not be able to return to the U.K. immediately and may be subject to a short period of quarantine on their arrival here,” explains Kerstin Kehren, a spokesperson for the school. “We have delayed the start of all in-person teaching until 21 September 2020 as a result. Those few students who may be temporarily unable to join us at our London campus by that date will still be able to take part in their classes virtually as part of the new hybrid model.”
Unsurprisingly, a big factor that determines how well schools are reacting is whether they have an established online offering. The Global MBA at UCL School of Management, for example, which is taught online with the addition of a few face-to-face sessions throughout the year, faces only minor disruption. “We’re chugging along, we’re running as normal. In fact, our faculty are helping train the rest of the university to adapt,” says Jim Berry, director of UCL’s MBA.
Because most of UCL’s lecture theatres have cameras, professors on both the MBA and other master’s programs are able to broadcast to distant students. And those used to running group sessions on Zoom for the MBA can easily start doing so for other programs.
‘THE AMOUNT OF FACE-TO-FACE TIME FOR STUDENTS IS GOING TO BE DIMINISHED’
Imperial Business School will begin its full-time MBA as planned in September, with a “multimodal” mix of online and socially distanced, face-to-face classes, albeit with fewer students if travel bans mean they can’t make it to London. It is well-placed to offer such a program, says the school, because of its Edtech Lab, a center for developing digital teaching tools. Imperial has a Global Online MBA and an online Master’s in Analytics, and this year is launching an online master’s program in Strategic Marketing.
“Of course, we realize that the amount of face-to-face time for students is going to be diminished,” says Imperial College Business School Dean Francisco Veloso. “But we’re benefiting from years of experience about how we create an engaging virtual experience for the things that are done directly, but also in terms of the kinds of environments that we can create in this new context.”
Since the spring, Imperial says that it has been working hard to evolve its online offer, including a system of online assessment, which was in the pipeline but was quickly forced to go from a pilot to full launch. Imperial says it has worked closely with students to “co-create” new elements to compensate for the ones that have been lost. They have added extra electives and online guest speakers while the alumni network helped give current students new projects to replace lost ones.
DURHAM BOASTS A VIRTUAL INTERNATIONAL EXPERIENCE
Durham University Business School is another with a strong online MBA, and benefits from the fact that many faculty who teach on the full-time MBA also teach on the online version, meaning the switch to teaching the full-time program online was smooth. The school says that this has helped them adapt parts of its program, such as a “virtual” international experience that involved everything except a physical visit to Switzerland, and a boardroom challenge involving mentorship from high-level execs which ran online, rather than in-person.
“We are really thinking about safety,” says DUBS’ Executive Dean Susan Hart. “We don’t know how long social distancing will last, but we are currently modeling on two meters, which obviously reduces class size. We could deliver online and are prepared to if government advice changes, but the reasons people come to do a face-to-face program is because they don’t want to do an online MBA. So we will be separated out in space, and in time, and will make much greater use of the platforms we already use to get material in front of students so they can interact with each other and with the faculty members.”
Hart adds that about 50 percent of potential students on non-MBA master’s programs – which do not have online versions – have expressed an interest in postponing the start of their programs until January, rather than October.
MANCHESTER PUSHES BACK ORIENTATION BY THREE MONTHS INTO DECEMBER
Alliance Manchester Business School, which does not have an online MBA, will postpone the start date for its next full-time MBA from September to December. “We usually start in September with a three-week orientation and start the credit-bearing element in October. This year we will push back orientation to December, and start the credit-bearing courses in January,” explains the school’s Director of MBA Programs Xavier Duran.
“Full-time MBA participants are giving up their jobs, often moving country and bringing their family with them, and likely taking a job in the UK afterward,” Duran adds. “This is not a decision taken lightly and they wanted reassurance that they wanted a face-to-face experience as much as possible. Until recently we were talking not just about social distancing, but the possibility of lockdown too. People didn’t want to be sitting in a dark room in a foreign country taking courses online.”
The assumption is that by January, distancing rules will be less disruptive to face-to-face classes. Travel restrictions, which might prevent students from coming overseas, will also hopefully be less stringent.
PROJECTS WITH COMPANIES ALSO GO VIRTUAL
Also pertinent is that Manchester’s MBA lasts 15-18 months, rather than the UK standard of 12 months. This gives it greater flexibility for two reasons. Firstly, the risk that some classes might be online is more bearable the longer a program is. Three months of online classes in a 12-month program sounds unappealing. In an 18-month program, it is less so. Secondly, the school is used to having two years of full-time MBA students on campus at once. Schools used to running a strict, 12-month, one-group-in, one-group-out regime could face space and logistical issues if they postponed.
ESCP, which has campuses in six European cities including London, faces a unique challenge. One of its selling-points is that students move between countries. This year, that might be trickier. For now, shorter stays will be replaced by virtual alternatives. For example, a recent project for MSc students with L’Oréal saw the usual trip to Paris canceled, and was entirely carried out online for 50 students from numerous time-zones. Longer-term stays in other cities tend to happen later in the year, by which time ESCP hopes that travel restrictions will have eased.
In general, though, ESCP is following the familiar model: “The larger classes and lectures will be online and the smaller classes and seminars, to the extent possible, will be live in person safely administered socialization, distancing requirements,” explains Simon Mercado. “We are planning a fully blended model.”
For years business schools have promised to teach students how to thrive in a volatile, uncertain work environment, and the COVID crisis has demanded that they practice what they preach. Very few students have so far deferred or canceled business programs at UK schools, proving that schools have talked a good game. We will find out soon whether they can walk the walk.