When students arrive at business schools in the UK this fall, the experience will be radically different from usual. Social-distancing and mask-wearing will be mandatory while socializing will be at a minimum. Otherwise, it is unclear what the future holds.
The country is already suffering a resurgence of Covid-19, the national testing system is severely stressed, 10 million people are under some sort of restriction and the government is considering a second nationwide lockdown. The recently introduced “rule of six” bans groups of more than that number from congregating — although thankfully educational settings are exempt.
So how are its business schools coping with this situation, and how will campuses look and feel?
Manchester Alliance Business School, one of the country’s top-ranked schools, is in the northwest, where several towns are experiencing Covid outbreaks and lockdowns are expected. Alliance plans to open its campus properly in October for some students, although the full-time MBA has postponed its induction week to December, and classes proper start in January. (As the full-time MBA lasts 18 months, rather than the standard European 12, participants were relaxed about putting off the start date, says the school.) However, Alliance had a dry-run of its new system in early September, when participants on the full-time and part-time MBA which started in 2019 came onto campus.
“We had ten to a classroom instead of the usual 20,” says Xavier Duran, MBA programs director. It really let us test out everything, making sure that masks were worn and how to ensure that people socially distance.” Things went well — one-way systems worked, albeit in a building empty except for the workshop participants. The three days were intense, with two days of workshops running from 9-5 and group-work in the evenings, and some participating virtually but, says Duran, as networking is such a vital part of an MBA and people have been unable to do it for so long, they were very happy with the situation.
Alliance says that its courses will be socially distanced — they are insisting on 2 meters’ distance, rather than the government advice of one, classroom capacity will reduce from 58 to 22. “Lectures will be delivered online, but all courses will have a face-to-face component,” says Xavier Duran, “meaning that there will be one to two hours every day.” Students will be kept up to date with the latest guidance on the university website, and will be strongly encouraged to adhere to the rule of six when socializing off-campus. There is an on-campus testing centre for anyone who displays covid symptoms.
Warwick Business School, located in the Midlands close to the city of Leicester which at the time of writing was still under lockdown, just completed induction week for its Executive MBA. “Some did it online, because they are in countries with travel restrictions or would have to quarantine if they came to the UK, but most chose to do it face-to-face,” says Hossam Zeitoun, course director for the Executive MBA. Group-work that usually takes place in groups of six of seven were reduced to groups of four people. One-way systems are in place throughout the campus, and stairways are either up or down, so people don’t pass each other.
Lecture theaters which previously had a capacity of 70 will take only 42 people, who will sit in their own, designated Perspex boxes. Breakout spaces also have Perspex screens. Social distancing is in place throughout the campus, and lounge spaces have signs reminding people about the distancing rules, while “student experience ambassadors” will remind students of the rules if they gather in groups of more than six, or stand too close together. If rooms reach capacity people will ask some to move to another area. A track-and-trace system is also in place; students swipe in and out of rooms, so that if anyone tests positive then WBS can alert anyone they have been in contact with.
London Business School aims to provide a quality learning experience for “roomies and Zoomies” — those studying in-person, and those learning remotely — with its new “integrative hybrid model.” All students use technology throughout their sessions to interact with faculty, access course content and take part in any discussion. All breakout groups will consist of some people in the room, and some on a screen. All students use technology during sessions to communicate with themselves and professors.
“Each student keeps their webcam on so everyone attending can communicate with peers and fully take part whether on campus or not. This means faculty can shine and students benefit fully from each other’s contributions,” says Tolga Tezcan, academic director of the MBA, MiM, and MAM programs. “Faculty are supported by specially trained facilitators who essentially operate as film directors to highlight questions from students and ensure a great flow of communication throughout.”
Lecture theaters are at 50% capacity, but LBS have added courses such as managing through crisis, virtual networking and remote project management. They are working with speakers and companies from more countries than usual, and have been working on new ways to connect students with recruiters.
Saïd Business School, Oxford, says that teaching groups have quartered from 80 to 20 students, with in-person classes supported by “on-demand” digital content. Lectures have a maximum of 20 people, with the exception of the largest lecture hall, which will now take 43. Lecturers will stand behind a large screen, except in the biggest. In order to increase capacity, Said has also hired the Oxford Playhouse theatre for the fall term, which otherwise would have been sitting empty.
Saïd has increased the number of cafes and catering spaces on campus, in order to more evenly spread people and reduce crowding. Because administrative staff are working from home, some offices have been converted to social spaces too. Stewards will be placed on every door.
Students will also use an app called Crowdless, developed in the Oxford Foundry — the university’s entrepreneurship center — to use existing data, crowdsourced data and machine learning to determine how busy places are, so students can head to less crowded parts of the campus.
Judge Business School, Cambridge, welcomed 57 Executive MBA students back to campus at the start of September, with 41 participating remotely. Full-time MBA students’ orientation week begins on 21 September, with classes starting a week later. Streams will be smaller than previously, and class sizes will depend on how many students have overcome visa issues and travel bans and made it to campus.
Over spring and summer, classrooms and lecture theaters were prepared for social distancing, with clear marking of which seats can be used. One-way systems are in place. Plasma screens throughout the school will display the Covid-19 Code of Conduct, which is also in a booklet given to students. Students will only be allowed in Judge buildings when they have timetabled activities. Masks and hand-gel is available, and students are reminded not to shake hands or hug when they meet. Door-opening pads have embedded sanitizer.
Judge aims to “turn a crisis into an opportunity for lasting innovation and improvement to the student experience” and “to invest in the future in order to continue to deliver high-quality education and a rich student experience.” In practice, this means that the use of technology has been accelerated by the crisis.
“The pandemic, while extremely disruptive to everyone around the world, has provided an opportunity for students to learn and apply new ways of thinking to many future situations,” says Thomas Roulet, deputy director of the Cambridge MBA program. The same, of course, is true for schools.