Thomas Edwards, wearing casual clothes and with hands clasped, sits on the bleachers of a stadium
Thomas Edwards, in Paris for an internship, opted for an in-person masters after a ‘destabilising’ first degree during the pandemic © Marie Genel, for the FT

Covid-19 upended Thomas Edwards’ academic journey. Studying for a bachelors degree in business at the UK’s Manchester Metropolitan University, what began for him as a typical on-campus experience evolved into a new reality of remote examinations when the pandemic struck.

Edwards (pictured above) found himself grappling with digital platforms as he completed his exams online. “It was quite destabilising; it completely changed the experience,” he recalls.

That experience guided his decision to choose a conventional in-person programme for his masters degree, as opposed to an online alternative. He enrolled on an MSc Management in International Business at Grenoble Ecole de Management in France between 2021 and 2023.

“The experience of Covid made me want to be part of a community,” he says. “A lot of the value from business school is not what you learn in the classroom, it’s the people you meet and connections you make.”

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Edwards’ story reflects a renewed preference for on-campus education in the wake of the pandemic — particularly among younger students who yearn for a more personal learning experience.

Covid-19 restrictions forced degree programmes to adapt to online delivery during much of 2020 and 2021. Even as campuses reopened after lockdowns, business schools looked to integrate the benefits of technology into their on-campus programmes. However, they encountered a lukewarm response, especially from masters in management (MiM) students, who usually start these courses soon after their first degree.

“This generation has a deeply rooted scepticism against online learning,” says Roland Siegers, director of external engagement and early career programmes at ESMT Berlin. Much of this year’s MiM cohort pursued their undergraduate degrees during the peak of the pandemic, which severely disrupted their education. Many expressed dissatisfaction with the substandard virtual teaching they received.

“It shows every time we decide to bring the class together virtually, it has become extremely difficult to catch and retain their attention,” Siegers says. Consequently, ESMT has reverted to almost fully in-person teaching for MSc programmes.

ESMT’s experience reflects a broader trend seen in the latest Tomorrow’s Masters study by education consultant CarringtonCrisp with the EFMD management development network. The proportion of prospective masters students preferring online or blended study has decreased to 29 per cent this year, from 38 per cent in 2022. Nearly half of the 1,755 global respondents now lean towards full-time on-campus study.

“Many of them completed their undergraduate degree during Covid and missed out on some of the student experience, so they are desperate to get back on campus and make the most of it,” says Andrew Crisp, co-founder of CarringtonCrisp.

Business schools note a divergence in preferences between pre-experience students on MiMs and older MBA candidates, many of whom appreciate online learning for its flexibility in accommodating their professional commitments. “That benefit is not apparent for the MiM programme,” says S Sriram, the associate dean for graduate programmes at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in the US.

Accordingly, the majority of MiM programmes are delivered full-time on campus, with only a few exceptions such as the Robert H Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, which has launched a new online Master of Science in Management Studies this year, alongside its traditional on-campus programme. “Following the pandemic, we learnt we can do more things online,” says Rellie Derfler-Rozin, academic director of both programmes.

As more degrees go digital, she says that business schools should reassess the role of the campus in the post-pandemic world. “As educators, we have a responsibility to be more thoughtful about the value of being in-person, and how to make those experiences even more meaningful.”

Looking ahead, many academics stress the importance of incorporating online learning into masters programmes to equip students for virtual collaborations, which are increasingly prevalent in the workplace.

“We still think it’s important to provide students with at least some online experience as in future they are likely to be working partly from home,” says Céline Foss, programme director of the MSc Management in International Business at Grenoble. The programme is leveraging technology to connect students with professionals worldwide, to prepare them for the evolving workforce.

Beyond acquiring knowledge, building social connections and networks remains a significant appeal of campus study — a challenging aspect to replicate effectively online.

“We are profoundly social beings,” says Nicolas Arnaud, director of programmes at Audencia Business School in Nantes. “Our responsibility is to accompany these young people with little experience towards the construction of their professional identity, but also in some respects their personal identity.”

Some institutions are finding an equilibrium. Audencia offers students the option to complete one semester fully online. “We’ve learnt from Covid that it’s not a question of going back to 100 per cent [in person] as it was before, but of finding the right balance,” Arnaud says.

As technology continues to advance, there is hope that schools can reimagine the online experience beyond videoconferencing, offering more immersive and interactive virtual environments to rival in-person education. “My hope would be that as hardware improves, we can enable better experiences,” says David Suarez, vice-dean at Spain’s IE Business School. “We need to go beyond webcams.”

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