Covid-19 Hastens the Growth in Online MBAs in Europe

The pandemic has convinced a clutch of locked-down institutions to launch Online MBA programs, especially in Europe. The trend looks set to continue

While many academic institutions across Asia are resuming face-to-face teaching, those in Europe are having to introduce tighter restrictions because of rising coronavirus cases and fresh national lockdowns.

The pandemic has convinced a clutch of locked-down European institutions to launch Online MBA programs in the past 12 months. The trend looks set to continue, as the Otto Beisheim School of Management recently announced plans for an Online MBA, with classes starting in August this year.

In Germany, where the school is based, infection numbers are rising from a third wave of coronavirus.

For Rebecca Winkelmann, director of the school’s new Online MBA, the pandemic crystallized the choice to go viral, which was made before Covid-19 struck.

She brought forward the launch of the program from 2022. “The main reason was the shift to digital teaching for all degree programs right at the beginning of the global crisis,” Winkelmann says. “We strongly felt we had everything in place to launch the program much quicker than initially planned.” 

A rapid shift to remote teaching

The outbreak in March last year forced a rapid shift to remote teaching as campuses closed to safeguard staff and student welfare. The experience has strengthened confidence in the merits of digital degrees, which tend to be cheaper and taught over a longer period, allowing students to keep working while studying. The asynchronous courses, alongside live sessions and periodic residential modules, let students study whenever and wherever it is convenient.

“One of the main benefits of studying an MBA online is the high degree of flexibility,” says Winkelmann. “Students save time on travel and costs.”

Moreover, the pandemic has dashed concerns that online learning would cannibalize the traditional classroom-based delivery of MBA degrees. The past year has proven the two modalities can work in harmony.

Online programs have tapped into new and potentially larger markets, democratizing business education in the process. The high tuition fees, the opportunity cost of not working and intensify of study, are discouraging some potential students from applying to full-time programs.

“So many potential learners have been excluded from the MBA market due to the rigidity of formats offered by business schools,” says Nick Barniville, associate dean of degree programs at ESMT Berlin. “Moving online opens new markets but does not cannibalize face-to-face programs. The target audiences are different.”

Increasing interest in European Online MBA programs

Indeed, there is a bifurcation happening in the market for MBAs, with distinctive segments of applicants emerging. Online MBAs are often taken by older students who already have substantial work experience and so are reluctant to give up their jobs to study full-time, for example.

But this is no longer a niche audience, with intakes of Online MBA students becoming as large and as select as their counterparts who are studying on campus. The growth in demand for full-time MBAs has been far surpassed by the growth in online programs, with applications increasing by 43.5 percent in 2020, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.

The trend looks set to continue, as the research group Carrington Crisp’s Tomorrow’s MBA Study from late 2020 showed that 78 percent of applicants are more likely to pursue a degree that gives them greater flexibility. “It’s likely that market acceptance of online learning has grown significantly over the past 12 months,” says Barniville. ESMT, for example, announced a new Online MBA in March this year, with sessions starting in September.

[See the Top 10 Online MBAs in Europe]

The forerunner to ESMT’s course is the Online MBA offered by MIP Politecnico di Milano in Italy, which launched back in 2014. The school’s dean, Federico Frattini, thinks the pandemic has changed perceptions among applicants and companies, and opened their minds to the possibilities of remote teaching.

“Something has changed,” he says. “The pandemic forced people to get used to online meetings. Thus, candidates are now more aware of the potential of digital education. The same applies to recruiters, who now perceive online learning to be as good as on-campus programs.”

On the other hand, some potential applicants are experiencing “Zoom fatigue”, which has only strengthened their belief in the value of campus teaching. “Those who already preferred on-campus programs are now even more” entrenched in that belief, says Frattini.

In Belgium, Vlerick Business School established its Online MBA in 2017. Steve Muylle, academic director of the course, says it has dramatically expanded the school’s global reach. “We have expanded the number of nationalities in the Online MBA, with participants based in exotic locations such as the Republic of Palau. In our April intake, more than half of the participants are international,” he says.

The program also “killed two birds with one stone”, adds Muylle. “The launch of the Online MBA acted as a catalyst for the digital transformation of our school, bringing many faculty on board and getting them familiar with digital systems and tools.”

Those schools which had already invested in digital infrastructure fared better when the pandemic struck, ensuring continuity of learning. The outbreak is now accelerating the switch to online education.

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