In the wake of Covid-19, business schools and their students will have new and unprecedented challenges to face. Serving as the founding dean for Asia School of Business in collaboration with MIT Sloan, Charles Fine is used to facing unique challenges. Hear his thoughts about how Covid-19 is impacting the business school landscape and how these potential changes could influence your MBA plans.

Overall, what positive and negative impacts do you see in the business school market as a result of Covid-19, and how will schools have to adapt?

Many business schools are learning to move to an all-digital world faster than originally planned. We are discovering the challenges and opportunities of digital learning firsthand. The rapid shift to digital learning shifts the education process for students as well, providing skills and deeper perspectives on navigating digital work environments, which will be relevant in their post-MBA work environments.

The current circumstances have triggered more immediate access to resources across the globe. For example, although it is more difficult for our engaged MIT faculty to travel across the globe, many more are expressing willingness and availability to teach remote courses and webinars for ASB.

However, most students and faculty still feel that in-person programming allows for richer experiences in the classroom, in Action Learning projects, and in team-based assignments. These immersive educational experiences are what make a programme like ours more “transformative” than purely digital or purely classroom-based programmes.

The social experience is also altered in digital programmes. For example, when our MBA students return from their Summer Associate Program experiences across the world and see each other face-to-face, there is a rich quality to the interaction, even if they were connected all summer via email and WhatsApp. As necessary, we will try to replicate this face-to-face richness digitally.

By necessity, schools are moving to online classes. ASB is less lecture-oriented and case discussion-oriented than many other business schools. Students spend one-third of their time in the field on Action Learning projects, so our curriculum is disrupted to a greater degree. Nonetheless, the past term, the second half of last semester was conducted digitally -- and clients and students were both very happy with the outcomes of their projects.

Global mobility is inherent in the design of the ASB MBA programme, since our students travel each semester to numerous countries in the region for their projects. As a result, adapting to the Covid environment may be more challenging for us than for other business schools, but I am confident in our ability to navigate the transition. We are working intensively with our faculty and corporate partners on strategies to preserve the immersive nature of our programme and foster close relationships among students and companies as we prepare for the possibility of a partially digital fall semester.

What is the outlook for business schools in Asia, and will they fare better or worse than their Western counterparts?

Applications to ASB have increased significantly in quality and quantity in our most recent admissions cycle. At the same time, Asian applications to business schools in the United States and Europe have decreased. I think this trend is likely to continue.

If you look at the current global map of Covid-19 cases, Western Europe and the United States have been hit harder and many Asian countries have gotten the situation under control more quickly. As a result, those living in Asia may become a bit more reluctant to move to the West.

Of course, this trend was already in motion before Covid-19. We have already seen a larger proportion of Asians wanting to stay in Asia, partly due to shifts in American immigration policy and partly due to economic growth opportunities in Asia. This shift especially benefits us, because we can offer MIT-quality in a uniquely Asian context.

Do you foresee a transition to fully online business schools, and can an online degree provide the same value and opportunities as an in-person degree?

A lot of schools will be under extreme financial pressure in the coming year. Even the M7 business schools (Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, Columbia Business School, and MIT’s Sloan School of Management) that were projecting revenue surpluses in 2020 are now projecting significant losses.

Many schools that are under financial pressure may see all-digital programmes as a lower-cost solution. While they require the short-term investment necessary to make courses available online, in the long-term online programmes will likely be cheaper for both the school and its students.

However, online MBAs will become an intensely competitive space where differentiation between schools becomes more difficult. Many schools take pride in the quality of their network and the business ecosystem of their city. The greater difficulty of providing these differentiating factors will likely lead to further price competition among online programmes.

I don’t think in-person MBAs will go away. They provide a richer experience with higher fidelity networking opportunities. With face-to-face interaction, students have the ability to connect more deeply with the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, for example.

Among MBA programmes, the quality of the education you receive matters. Top schools know this and will continue to offer in-person options while maintaining their brand value and on-campus experience.

How will the current situation change the skillset that employers value, if at all, and how do you plan to address these potential changes?

Crisis speeds change. Organisations will have to pivot and innovate, and old business models will become obsolete more quickly. Professionals will need different skills to succeed in a rapidly changing environment than in a stable one. These include creativity, innovation, and willingness to experiment. These skills have been the focus of our curriculum, and we will continue to strengthen this focus.

There will also be a greater need for managing digital and remote work. This is a trend that has been ongoing for some time, though it has been dramatically accelerated by Covid-19. Many organisations now find that they needed a greater understanding of how to manage and maintain connections and communication from a distance.

Then there’s the changing relationship with customers. There has been a significant shift toward e-commerce over the last couple of decades, but consumer commerce continued to be dominated by in-store purchasing, up until the Covid lockdowns. Because some countries and cities have dramatically curtailed in-store shopping, more organisations will have to develop digital retailing and marketing capabilities.

As a school, we will continue to develop course material and source Action Learning projects that build these capabilities in our students.

Will the next few years be an opportune time to attend business school, and will business degrees continue to have value?

An MBA education is designed to strengthen one’s capabilities to address managerial challenges. Such challenges often increase in times of rapid change or crisis, so MBAs will continue to add value as the world becomes more complex and dynamic.

Many people believe that a recession is a great time to invest in their education. The opportunity cost of not working full-time is lower, job security is decreased, and alternate job opportunities are limited. Many students enrol in the hopes that the job market will improve by the time they graduate.

However, enroling in an MBA is also a personal decision that requires a significant investment of time and money. It largely depends on the student’s financial situation, aspirations, and current commitments.

At the end of the day, an MBA will always offer value to those who want to learn to manage in complex environments. At ASB, we look for students who aren’t content with the status quo and are willing to embrace change and uncertainty.

Some people think getting an MBA is like punching a ticket to get a more lucrative job, but the experience will require them to face challenges that they weren’t expecting to face. The more students are willing to learn and grow, the more they will get out of their experience.