Business education takeaways from 2020

What has 2020 taught us? Associate Director Stephanie Mullins and colleague Jonny Stone at specialist business education PR consultancy BlueSky Education discuss.

As the year comes to a close, it would be appropriate to say that 2020 has been challenging to say least. For many, this year will forever be remembered for one thing – COVID-19. The pandemic has changed life as we know it, dramatically altering the way we live, work and interact with one another. It has also drastically altered the way we view a number of things, such as health, cleanliness, business ethics, remote working, but also education. We hope, out of the many lasting effects of COVID-19, that the respect seen for the value of higher and business education will endure for years to come.

Throughout this pandemic, the societal contribution of business schools and universities, most notably through academic research and expert insights, has been thrown into the spotlight. Yet, the impact of academic institutions has been so much more than just research and commentary. Business schools and universities have rallied to support their staff and students, as well as the wider community. And, despite the barriers posed by COVID-19, they have continued to thrive.

Altering teaching methods, reallocating funds, not-for-profit initiatives; these are just a few examples of the many immense contributions made by schools and universities during this pandemic. So, when people, particularly those working at or with business schools and universities, think back to 2020 and remember the destruction caused by the pandemic, we hope that the contributions made by the higher and business education sectors aren’t forgotten.

Looking back over the course of the year, alongside the many reasons to be proud of business schools and their contributions throughout the pandemic, there are also numerous lessons for 2021. Trends accelerated and priorities reoriented, many schools look different today than they did at the start of the year. But, that’s not necessarily a bad a thing. Many schools have embraced the change thrusted upon them by COVID-19 and have come out the other side as stronger institutions because of it. Looking at those schools, I want to outline some of the takeaways for business schools from 2020.

Social Impact

There can be no doubt that COVID-19 has demanded a new way of thinking about the societal role of business schools. Social impact, as well as an awareness of the issues facing local communities and beyond, has become a key signal for many of an institution’s worth. It goes beyond creating socially-responsible future business leaders. Institutions have demonstrated their acute awareness of the challenges local communities face, and their desire to support those communities. COVID-19 has presented schools with the opportunity to do just that. All over the planet, institutions have done their part to support businesses and individuals, sharing their expertise and experience. A great example of this comes from Trinity Business School in Dublin, Ireland.

Realising the barriers that businesses have faced during this pandemic, Trinity were keen to do their part to provide firms with the skills and understanding needed to rebuild post-pandemic. Harnessing the insights of their faculty members, and teaming up with Ibec, Ireland’s leading business confederation, Trinity Business School launched the Reboot & Reignite Series. A series of free webinars which aligned with Executive Education programmes, Trinity’s Reboot & Reignite campaign provided ailing businesses with intimate exposure to some of the Republic of Ireland’s best business minds. This was just one of many examples from the Dublin-based business school of a clear commitment to supporting the wider community around them. Throughout the pandemic, Trinity’s Dean, Professor Andrew Burke, has made clear his own personal awareness of societal challenges, producing numerous thought-leadership pieces around the need for change in our approach to business. Burke hasn’t been alone in voicing a need for change. Professor Federico Frattini, Dean of MIP Politecnico di Milano in Milan, has also demonstrated his desire to create change.

For a recent EFMD contribution, I spoke with Frattini about the work of MIP in bringing about change. Discussing MIP’s ‘B Corp Certification’ – a prestigious recognition awarded to companies for their commitment to building a more inclusive society and continued sustainable development – the Dean made clear his view on the social responsibility of business schools.

“The commitment towards people, society and the environment should be typical of all business schools,” Frattini said.

He’s right. Institutions are recognising the need to demonstrate their commitment to more than just educating the world’s future business leaders. In 2021, showing an awareness of the societal issues, as well as a commitment to remedying those challenges, is likely to be much more than a great marketing message – it’ll be a benchmark standard.

Online Learning

While the lockdown restrictions that forced universities and business schools all over the world to shift from face-to-face to online learning are slowly easing in many countries, we think it’s safe to say that online and blended learning is here to stay.

Go back to December 2019. If you’d asked most business school leaders whether they thought that, in just under a year’s time, they’d be teaching most programmes via online and remote learning formats, the answer would have undoubtedly been a resounding no. That’s not to say that institutions haven’t been gradually shifting further towards blended learning practices, but COVID-19 has acted as a potent catalyst for the shift to online. And, what started as a temporary, short-term measure is looking more and more likely to be incorporated in many programmes at numerous schools.

Imperial College Business School is a market leader in terms of EdTech. A world-leading institution for subjects such as technology, science and business as well as medicine, Imperial was well-placed to make the swift change in format. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph at the start of the academic year, Executive Director of marketing, recruitment and admissions at Imperial, Joël McConnell, outlined the impressive lengths that the business school had gone to with its investment in online learning. As we move into 2021, schools that are still yet to do so must ensure that they too demonstrate to potential students the value of online education, as McConnell did.

Imperial isn’t alone in its impressive innovation. In September, NEOMA Business School launched its virtual campus, enabling students to interact with one another as though they were all in the same location. The first school in Europe to do so, NEOMA’s innovation has ensured that students get the most authentic atmosphere possible.

The list goes on. Throughout the year schools all over the planet have embraced online learning, innovating the ways in which they teach. And, as we head into 2021, this trend will continue.

PR & Communications

It should come as no surprise to any when we say that the events of 2020 have made business school PR & communications more important than ever before. As the business education sector reeled at the impact of COVID-19, and uncertainty set in around what the future held for schools post-COVID, it was often the efforts of marketing and communications that preserved people’s faith in education. Creating content that reaffirmed the value of studying at a business school, particularly under remote learning conditions, became critical almost overnight. Traditionally, economic downturns lead to a surge in applications for Masters Degrees and MBAs, however, this time around, with countries closing their borders, and online learning becoming the norm, there was a risk that people would question whether enrolling at business school was the right move.

But, with schools communicating effectively, utilising social media channels as well as print and online media, confidence in business education was not lost. With 2021 fast approaching, the importance of PR and Communications remains. Institutions must continue to invest time, effort and resources into these areas if they’re to really boost their success over the coming year.

ESMT Berlin has demonstrated a recognition of the value of PR during this crisis through consistent media coverage reiterating the value of their programmes, particularly during a crisis. Earlier this year, they secured a feature in leading business education publication, BusinessBecause, around the importance of an MBA in a crisis. Using one of their former students who had studied the MBA at the time of the 2008 financial crisis, the business school was able to provide a real-life example of someone who had actively benefited from enrolling on the programme during difficult circumstances.

Similar coverage has also been secured during the COVID era by many schools, including Alliance Manchester Business School and Imperial College Business School. After all, current and future students may face an uncertain future thanks to COVID-19, so press exposure for business schools needs to reassure these individuals that they’ve made the right decision opting to study with your institution. In 2021, the schools who make the best case as to why their programmes are of value, particularly during challenging and uncertain times, will be the ones that thrive.