How Are Australia’s MBA Providers Meeting COVID-19 Challenges?

As the initial health risks recede in Australia, the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are becoming clearer.

With a large exposure to international students many participants in Australia’s $500 million MBA sector, which includes dozens of universities and private providers, are working quickly to assess the immediate impacts while planning for the longer term.

At any one time there are more than 30,000 MBA students in Australia, including nearly 18,000 international students. A large percentage of those students are already undertaking fully online programs that remain largely unaffected in terms of delivery.

While the broader higher education sector continues to campaign for more support from the government, the country’s top business schools are getting on with the job of delivering content to existing students and preparing for the future.

A recent survey of members by business schools standards and accreditation manager AACSB found 46% of of schools were expecting a decrease in enrolment in their terms beginning within the next six months while about one-in-four (27%) are not expecting any change.

“Our findings suggest that, just like in most industries around the world, business schools and higher education are experiencing a high degree of uncertainty for what the future holds, especially in regard to enrolment and recruitment efforts,” the report said.

“We are seeing that business school leaders are taking into consideration various scenarios that could change from month to month.

“Many of the differences across enrolment impacts and anticipated changes are and will continue to be dependent on what part of the world a school is located in, as well as what many of our schools would point out—differences in the types of students they attract, their missions, and other specific contexts and qualities.”

With campuses now shut and major uncertainty about when students can return, most Australian MBAs programs that weren’t already delivered online have moved to provide students with digital-delivery options.

For many of the programs with an established online platform, COVID-19 has been a boon for applications.

AGSM @ UNSW’s top-ranked MBAx program has received a strong uptick in interest with 60% more applications than at the same time last year.

While the school has received applications from very strong international candidates for the Full-Time MBA program (January 2021 start) but it is too early to tell how that cohort recruitment will be impacted by the geopolitical ramifications of COVID-19.

The MBAx is designed to deliver a world-class online learning experience and attracts professionals looking for a high quality education experience with the added flexibility of studying online.

AGSM Academic Director Dr Michele Roberts said flexibility and multiple options were important than ever as more people wanted to build modular learning experiences to meet their specific needs – and gain a credible qualification at the same time.

“Strong growth in enrolments and our performance in global rankings suggests that we are achieving both these aims,” Dr Roberts said.

With established systems and technology AGSM had relatively little trouble migrating its full-time and Executive MBA students to the online environment.

“AGSM is already set up and well versed in virtual collaboration tools like MS Teams, so the move to supporting faculty and students while working from home has been less disruptive transition than it would be for others,” Dr Roberts said.

The recent Intrapreneurship course is a good example. An intensive weekend program moved from face-to-face to online within a matter of days.

“The feedback from students was that it actually added value to the course in the sense that they now have a better appreciation of some of their own remote work colleagues, and understanding of some of the tools (referring to MS Teams) they can use to collaborate more effectively with remote work colleagues,” she said.

With a likely fall in applications many business schools around the world have moved to lower admission standards to maintain numbers. Locally, business schools are maintaining exisiting entry requirements

A spokesperson for the University of Sydney said the school was not currently planning any changes to admission requirements for MBA programs, it was monitoring the situation closely.

“Application numbers remain on par with the same time last year,” the spokesperson said. “We’ve had feedback that some applicants are looking to develop new skills to navigate the uncertain environment and see the MBA as a pathway to a new career.

The school supporting is existing students by providing a range of support measures and services for students including the adoption of a ‘no-disadvantage’ approach to assessment and peer support advisors who are on hand to help students via Zoom.

AIB CEO Paul Wappett has prioritised student welfare throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

The Australian Institute of Business (AIB) has one of Australia’s largest MBA students bodies and as a fully online provider was well positioned to manage the COVID-19 restrictions.

AIB Chief Executive officer Paul Wappett said student welfare had become a priority.

“It’s pretty hard to think about studying an MBA when you’re anxious about whether you can access food and other provisions, whether to send your kids to school or not, how you’re going to see your mum in her aged-care facility, whether you’ll have a job in two weeks’ time and, if not, how you can afford your mortgage etc.

AIB’s most recent Census Date coincided with the tightening of social distancing measures and the company saw an increase in withdrawals at the very end that was about 30% more than typical.

“We weren’t surprised by that,” Mr Wappett said. “A large number of people lost their jobs or were stood down in the ten days beforehand and so they were rightly concerned about the implications of that for them.”

“Our current enquiry, application and enrolment numbers are looking strong as people start to think about the future in which there will be likely fewer jobs and more applicants, and so are wanting to build their skills/knowledge bank to be able to be an attractive option for employers in the future.

AIB has also put a strong focus on student and staff welfare and developed a clear set of guiding principles as to how they would make decisions through the crisis.

“Our first principle was that we needed to treat everybody in a very empathetic and human way,” he said.

“We have temporarily changed some of our processes for student life (things like our approach to pre-Census withdrawals, assessment extensions, and even the type of assessment we require of students) to ensure that anyone feeling stressed or uncertain was not put into more stressful situations by our policy settings.

“We increased the frequency of our touchpoints with students, expanded our range of support services (such as EAP services, access to tutorial support etc), held weekly seminars with students and our Executive Team, and provided flexibility on a range of learning options.

AIB has also proposed a range of scholarships for those people whose livelihood has been impacted by COVID-19 and are working with Government to enact these.

“One thing that we haven’t done (and which we will not do) is weaken our entry standards or what’s required to demonstrate attainment of the learning objectives of the course,” he said.

“This is not a time to reduce the quality (and therefore value) of AIB’s qualifications; if anything, it’s a time to reassert why they are important, and to ensure that those people who are making a really big investment of their time, energy and money to undertake their MBA have faith that its value will be meaningful and help to differentiate them in a tight job market.”

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Ben Ready founded MBA News in 2014 and is the Managing Editor. He is a former business and finance journalist with Australian Associated Press (AAP) and Dow Jones Newswires in London. Ben completed his MBA in 2012 and was awarded the QUT GMAA Entrepreneurship Prize. He is also the founder and Managing Director of RGC Media & Mktng (rgcmm.com.au).

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