How INSEAD Coped (And What It Learned) In A Year The World Stood Still

The year of COVID at INSEAD

In a year marked by travel bans, border closures, quarantines, and changing immigration and visa rules, INSEAD has arguably had a tougher time than any other business school. With major campuses in Fontainebleau just outside Paris and Singapore, as well as smaller ones in Abu Dhabi and since February 2020 San Francisco, its footprint is among the most global of any school.

In a normal year, pre-COVID, the school’s full-time MBA program alone welcomes students from around 80 countries in two classes of 500 which start in the middle and at the start of the year. In other words, INSEAD has a lot of moving parts at the best of times. The logistics of keeping the show on the road and delivering a world-class MBA to almost 1,000 students are mind-boggling. Early on in the health crisis, in March, INSEAD Dean Ilian Mihov was even struck with the coronavirus and had to be hospitalized.

So how has INSEAD coped in this chaotic year? And how has the pandemic experience changed the way it will deliver its MBA in the future?


“It’s been a crazy time, definitely,” Katy Montgomery, INSEAD’s associate dean of degree programs, tells Poets&Quants. “But what has remained the same is that we believe a business education is a force for good. Our basic principle is that we transform students who transform business who transform the world.”

Katy Montgomery, associate dean of degree programs at INSEAD

The basis of that mission is diversity, in both students and faculty (see Meet the INSEAD MBA Class of 2020). A remarkable 93% of the faculty are deemed to be international, while 96% of the students are from outside France and Singapore, the two primary campuses where MBAs study. That truly global dimension is what has long differentiated its MBA program from others.

Since 2010, the INSEAD has topped Poets&Quantsinternational MBA rankings six times. Alongside London Business School – which took the top spot the other four times – it is widely regarded as one of the world’s best. Starting compensation packages for INSEAD MBA grads are around $180,000, just slightly below the top U.S. ones, and it regularly performs spectacularly in the Financial Times rankings, placing fourth globally in 2020, and reaching second in 2018.

If you want to understand what makes INSEAD tick, the school’s slogan is probably the most concise statement of its mission: “the business school for the world.” Unlike many American business schools, its MBAs come from everywhere, and go everywhere. In a year when the world shuts its borders, that poses problems.


INSEAD’s core belief is that mixing culturally different people yields viewpoints and experiences that are critical to true transformation. Student mobility is essential to make that magic happen. “A lot of times when I talk to students they tell me that their study group of five people is the most diverse group they’ve ever been in. This is our philosophy, our spirit, our DNA,” says Montgomery. Diversity comes in many flavors — in terms of sector and role, for instance – but for INSEAD it is most clearly seen in terms of both classes’ and faculty’s internationalism.

Add in the fact that the school’s 10-month MBA is also incredibly intense, putting even greater pressure on the school when the whole of that precious time is disrupted by a pandemic.

Which means that in 2020, a school like INSEAD faced significant barriers. INSEAD has two full-time MBA intakes a year, the J-class which enters in September and graduates the following July, and the D-class which enters in January and graduates in December. Those starting in July 2020 found their plans thrown into disarray by the pandemic.


Some students couldn’t travel. Others decided the uncertainty meant that they were uncomfortable handing in their notices to quit their jobs. Still, others found that even if they could get a student visa to travel, their families were not able to move with them, or didn’t want to relocate during a health crisis. Added to the problems of traveling, INSEAD knew that its classroom capacities would be cut because of social distancing.

Usually, a class is 500 strong, but given all the extra logistical problems, the school decided to reduce its 2020 J-class to 310. Most of the rest deferred to the D-class which starts in January 2021, meaning that this class will number 610. “This really complex school took on another level of complexity,” says Montgomery.

What made life even more challenging was that, unlike some schools which embraced the “Roomies and Zoomies” approach and immediately offered digital learning and a hybrid MBA, INSEAD remained committed to its face-to-face model. Mask wearing, frequent hand washing, social distancing, assigned seating in classes and cafeterias became part of the protocol for returning to campus. Classrooms were cleaned between sessions, and faculty, wearing transparent masks, were required to stay within a specified space at the front of the classroom. “The default position was that if you are cleared and the government allows us, we will be teaching in person,” Montgomery says.


The school has never created an online MBA or integrated many online elements into programs. With the exception of those having to quarantine or isolate, or who had tested positive for COVID, at the time of writing [late December] everyone in Singapore was attending face-to-face classes, and it was only in November when the French government canceled all in-person teaching that Fontainebleau stopped operating face-to-face and went fully digital.

Obviously, classes were not entirely normal. Every participant was being tested every seven days, classes were socially distanced and there was a stringent regime of sanitization and mask-wearing. Some activities were disrupted. Factory tours were replaced with virtual versions, with students wearing virtual reality (VR) headsets, job-fairs moved online, guest speakers spoke via screens and some electives were delivered remotely. However, the school insists that a full-fat MBA was still delivered. “Nothing has been canceled, they just exist in a different format,” says Montgomery.

One part of the INSEAD experience which did look different in 2020 was the critical summer work placement, or “experience,” which often leads to a job offer. Many of the corporations which usually take INSEAD MBA candidates were not able to this year, and two-thirds of students worked with start-ups, with the same number doing them remotely. Singapore was in a circuit-breaker lockdown at the exact time people would have been doing their placements.

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