Stephanie Mullins, Associate Director at specialist business education PR consultancy, BlueSky Education, spoke with Angus Laing, Dean of Lancaster University Management School, about the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the institution and the wider industry for an upcoming podcast.

“We know how conservative academic colleagues can be,” says Laing – who has led the school since 2015 and is former chair of the Chartered Association of Business Schools (CABS) – yet the pivot from face-to-face to online teaching has been seen across the whole industry, and has demonstrated an ability for schools and academics to adapt quickly, he says.

“It has provided us with a different way of looking at our future, for really thinking long and hard about, not so much what we deliver, but how we deliver. I think it’s the beginning of a long journey.”

But beyond this, Laing believes it’s raised questions about business schools and universities’ income streams, in particular dependence on international student flows.

“Many schools depend on a relatively small number of markets – China and India most obviously – and there are financial consequences not just on the business school, but on the wider University, given the role we play as business schools within a university on the sustainability of that model. The question in my mind is whether the pattern of international student mobility we’ve grown accustomed to will continue?”

Laing suspects that we’re now past the peak of international student mobility. Yet despite future unknowns, he’s keen to emphasise that there are positives for the student experience. He’s seen that many students are reluctant to put their hand up in a large lecture theatre, for instance, so the switch to online benefits them. They are much happier asking a question using the chat bar. In fact, at the University of Lancaster, the Student Union has been pushing hard for more digital content to be made available.

“Students are quite clear what they’re looking for. They’re working in a digital world, much of what they do is digital and, with the pandemic, has become completely digital. That’s the expectation.”

It seems to be working well. American economist and Nobel prize winner, Vernon Smith, was due to give a lecture on campus this summer and it was held on Zoom instead with over 500 people participating. Lancaster have seen similar success with the programmes they run for businesses too, particularly with the masterclasses they run for NatWest bank across the north of England.

New questions for business school infrastructure

If these changes are permanent, what does that mean in terms of infrastructure?

Lancaster has just spent millions on a new building, Laing tells me, but asks whether we should be thinking less about physical infrastructure and more about digital infrastructure.

“We’ve also got to start thinking about the staff we need – have we got the right staff to do this? I think some people are not necessarily convinced that the world is changed completely. For what it’s worth, I think it has. I think this great accelerator has crystallised a lot of things. The dam has burst open. I don’t think we’re going to go back.”

Ultimately, Laing says the impact of the pandemic has changed the way business schools operate. He suggests that the model of developing academics over the past couple of decades could need reassessing in order to ensure the skills for evolving methods of delivery are in place.

“What we now find important is the interactive, educational experience online, which, in many ways, needs a different skill set. I wonder whether we will actually see less need for as many disciplinary research-focused academics, and more emphasis on academics who can really support the learning experience.”

But what impact does that have on attracting students?

“I think it opens up different markets for some schools that they’ve not traditionally serviced,” says Laing. “I suspect schools like Lancaster will probably gain a degree of advantage over schools that are based in big metropolitan areas which have always had the advantage of proximity to a large number of working, part-time students. We’re an hour’s drive from Manchester Central, it’s not easy to get that type of part-time post-experience student. I think we will see a rebalancing of the business that business schools get.”

And fears about student numbers might not be as bad as some have warned, as Laing states that students don’t have many options about when they’re going to be studying. “They’ve done their bachelor’s degree. They’ve probably got a year or two to do a post-grad, master’s programme, and then into work. They don’t have much latitude in terms of time, and things that they might otherwise have done – get a job, go and travel – they’re not options at the moment. While initial sentiment analysis was suggesting they’d rather not come this year and rather not have blended delivery, the brutal reality is… what are the alternatives?”

Lancaster along with Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and other universities are even working to organise flights from India and China into Manchester, to be able to provide a safe and secure route for students to come.

What does the long-term future hold?

“Looking to the longer term, as I think we’re past the peak of face-to-face delivery, I wonder whether there’ll be interesting opportunities for more regional hubs to draw students from across a region to a location and deliver a degree in that location. We’ve got joint venture campus operations in Malaysia, Germany and Ghana, and we’re seeing healthy student numbers. I can imagine us making greater use of those as sources of drawing international teams from a region rather than global travel,” says Laing, but the impact of the pandemic isn’t the only challenge on his mind when he’s considering the usefulness of this model.

“An issue we’re all facing – and it’s going to be there when the pandemic washes through – is the sustainability, the carbon footprint of universities, is hugely driven by business schools, international students flying in from around the world. We have to ask whether that’s sustainable in an environmental sense as well as sustainable in a business model sense. Delivering content closer to the students where they are, seems a fairly sensible way of going.

“It also enables us to look at how you can integrate local content, local expertise into the curriculum. It’s an international curriculum, it’s an international experience. That’s a really good way for them to come together without necessarily travelling. Perhaps equally importantly, in both Malaysia and Ghana, we have local academics tailoring the programme, bringing in cases, evidence and experience from that local context. That content is actually then available to students in Lancaster.”

The real world

It’s this real-world experience and impact that’s so important on every level. Laing has seen a broader shift in the industry around the significance of impact, even down to academic citations.

“I think we’ll see a greater diversification of the shape of academic staff and probably far greater emphasis on team-based approaches to teaching,” he says, envisioning collaboration between content developers, learning facilitators, people who secure research funding, and those who are skilled at doing the research to go into top publications, adding in people who engage businesses with the process.

Are all of these changes a result of the coronavirus pandemic?

Our conversation covered an incredible breadth of impacts that the pandemic brought to the surface, but Laing expects we’ll be seeing these ideas for years to come.

“I think the whole turmoil, the whole change – unfreezing, if you want to use the change management language – that the pandemic has caused will bring some of these agendas to the fore in the coming decade,” he says.

Whether we see more online delivery, international hubs or a new breed of academic, only time will tell.

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