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How Will Coronavirus Impact Business Schools?

Coronavirus has closed campuses and disrupted study schedules for business school students globally. But what if coronavirus continues to spread?

Fri Mar 6 2020

On the usually busy campus of MIP Politecnico di Milano, the lecture rooms are empty. MBA students are working at home on their computers. Coronavirus (or Covid-19), which started Wuhan, China, is spreading globally and much of northern Italy is on lockdown.

Already, the coronavirus outbreak has impacted business schools and students around the world; closing business schools in China, disrupting study trips, and causing concern for school administrators who fear a downturn in applications.

So what if coronavirus continues to spread?

Applications will decline

Problems are likely to arise even before students are admitted to business school. Every year, thousands of b-school candidates globally take the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), a key quality indicator for business schools when measuring a candidate’s suitability for an MBA or master's program.

But GMAT test centers are closed in mainland China until the end of March. Testing is also suspended in cities in northern Italy, South Korea, and other countries affected by the coronavirus. Testing for GMAT alternative, the GRE, is also suspended in multiple locations.

Western business schools, reliant on large application volumes from China, may also see a drop in Chinese applications as candidates who haven’t taken the GMAT, GRE, or a language test, before January 2020 will now struggle to find a test center.

According to George Iliev, director at the b-school accreditation body AMBA, potential Chinese applicants for masters  who are due to complete their bachelor's degrees in summer 2020 will also face a challenge as the spring semester of the current school year in China has been postponed, so graduation will be postponed too this year.

International applications to schools are likely to be impacted anyway, as people become wary of travelling to hotbed areas, or travelling at all.

Chinese schools, who already struggle to attract internationals, are ramping up their marketing activities to counter the reputational damage caused by coronavirus. China has had the vast majority of cases (over 80,000 of 94,000 worldwide) and over 3,000 deaths as a result of the virus.

Admissions requirements will change

To counter these challenges, business schools will relax their admission requirements.

INSEAD is reportedly granting conditional acceptances to candidates pending the results of GMAT or GRE tests, and has become more flexible with application deadlines, deferral requests, and payment plans.

The GMAT often acts as a first filter for schools when vetting candidates, so issues with test-taking will put a higher workload on admissions teams, but they could also allow candidates who struggle with standardized testing to get a foot in the door; apply first and do the GMAT later.

Business schools have long said that admission is based on a holistic profile, so schools face a test to live up to their claims and assess more candidates solely based on admission essays and interviews, which will be increasingly conducted online.

The admission process is in full swing at many schools and candidates have received admission offers for 2020-21. If students’ plans are disrupted by coronavirus, and cohorts on some programs are smaller, groups of students from different courses can be merged. AMBA accreditation allows electives courses to be taught to mixed groups of MBAs and other masters students.

But it’s how students study that faces the most disruption as a result of coronavirus.


MIP's campus is closed and students are studying at home. (c) MIP Facebook

Programs will go online

As students at Milan’s MIP are forced to stay at home, activities originally planned to take place face-to-face have been moved online.

Federico Frattini, the school’s dean, says online learning platform FLEXA, developed in partnership with Microsoft, has kept students on schedule. “Our main message to anyone who studies at MIP is that you will be able to continue learn and be part of our strong community through distance-learning,” he says.

ESCP Business School, which has multiple European campuses, has stopped face-to-face learning at its Turin campus and transferred all teaching online. The UK’s UCL School of Management, located at the heart of London’s Canary Wharf where panic arose recently due to the coronavirus, uses Zoom technology to recreate the classroom format for its online program and will use this same technology for its full-time program if the situation worsens.

Distance-learning will help schools in the short-term. For programs with visiting professors—many Chinese schools have visiting professors fly in from the US, for example—online platforms are especially useful.

However, full-time students want a full-time course experience, not an online course. They want the campus experience and the networking opportunities. They want international trips and consulting projects abroad; many of which have been cancelled due to travel restrictions.

With coronavirus essentially turning full-time programs into online programs, schools may have to consider how they price full-time versus online courses—which typically cost less—or even how they compensate full-time students.

At the same time, online programs will likely see increases in applications as, alongside flexibility and cost, safety is added to the advantages of online learning

Business schools must act now

The business school community is standing strong against the coronavirus. London Business School has taken active steps to support its students and educate them on coronavirus symptoms.

Chinese schools are closed, but at Beijing’s Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business (CKGSB), students, alums, and companies managed by its alums have raised $573 million for coronavirus victims.

Perversely, coronavirus may increase the number of candidates who apply to business schools in the longer-term. Schools tend to receive fewer applications when an economy is strong and people are happier in their jobs (in the US, for example). The global economy looks set to take a hit from coronavirus (see graph above) and more professionals may therefore be prepared to quit their jobs for a business school program.

With the patent danger of coronavirus, that’s not a prospect business schools will relish. To date, school’s actions are understandably reactive. But simply putting learning online is a short-term solution. It’s not something every school has the technology for and it’s not what full-time students want.

The future is uncertain, but schools need to take proactive steps to keep their current students happy and keep prospective students engaged.