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Do the numbers add up? Some courses are designed to allow students paying their own way to spread the costs © Getty Images

Online business education often costs less than face-to-face programmes but it is by no means cheap. Executives, and their employers, also face growing financial pressures as inflation continues to run high in many countries.

Yet, despite the economic headwinds, corporate sponsorship of executive education remains strong. It is notably buoyant for short, digital courses for employees, as companies seek to upskill and retain staff in a tight labour market.

In the 2021/22 academic year at French business school Insead, employers funded 75 per cent of the 6,300 participants on all open online programmes, notes Séverine Guilloux, Insead’s chief marketing officer. Open courses are those available to any professional who meets the basic requirements to join them.

It is a similar picture at Belgium’s Vlerick Business School. One of its open executive courses, Take The Lead, costs €2,195 and is mainly taught digitally, with two in-person meetups. It takes eight weeks, or about 32 hours of studying, to complete. On average, since 2020, 70 per cent of its students have been employer funded, says Steve Muylle, the school’s associate dean of digital learning.

In some ways, the complex operating environment for businesses is playing to the advantage of executive education, whether online or in-person.

Even the most forward-thinking companies are faced with new developments — such as how to integrate artificial intelligence into their businesses — and need to bring their executives up to speed, says Tom O’Toole, associate dean of executive education at Kellogg School of Management in the US. Thanks to the present tight labour market, “companies are also investing in executive education programmes for executive retention,” he adds.

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With shorter digital courses being cheaper than their degree-programme counterparts, human resources teams can train more professionals for the same price, says Antonella Moretto, associate dean for open programmes at Polimi Graduate School of Management in Italy. Guilloux points out that, when companies send large cohorts on open online courses, they push for group discounts.

Rapid results are another potential benefit. Shorter online courses tend to focus on specific skills or competencies, Moretto says — so companies that have identified a gap in workers’ knowhow can use them to provide training that quickly meets their needs. This also means that the “return on investment might be much more measurable”, says Sankar Sivarajah, management school dean at the UK’s University of Bradford.

Similar considerations apply to self-funded students. Even professionals who have developed great expertise, and perhaps have an MBA to boot, may need to get to grips with challenges and subjects that were only just emerging in their earlier student days, says O’Toole. With long careers still ahead of them, he adds, executive courses enable them to stay at “the leading edge”.

In a keenly competitive market, costs are critically important. “I think that’s where the short courses have an advantage — their price range,” argues Sivarajah.

Meanwhile, longer and more expensive online MBAs are looking to flexible funding models to help workers cover the costs. Grants, fellowships and scholarships are the main ways that prospective online MBA students globally plan to fund their studies, according to data gathered in 2022 by the Graduate Management Admission Council, to be published in April.

Over half of respondents, 57 per cent, said this was how they funded their online MBAs, with personal earnings, savings and loans also important. Just 27 per cent said employer sponsorships were their financing method, down from 30 per cent in 2021.

Vlerick’s online MBA, which costs €37,500, is mostly funded jointly, with employers covering 60 per cent of the fees and students the rest. To help students spread the costs, Vlerick gives them the option of paying per course: completing 14 courses over up to five years will gain them the online MBA. Since 2018, 58 per cent of students have paid per course, with Vlerick also offering discount schemes to help them pay their way.

Some professionals, explains Muylle, can take advantage of government subsidies. The SME e-wallet, run by the Belgian government, contributes to some executive education courses for employees of small- and medium-sized enterprises. Students can receive up to €7,500 per year.

Hardship funds are another source of funding that is gaining in importance, says Sivarajah. These are not for tuition fees but for emergencies such as essential living costs. Payments of this type to students at Bradford university range from £250 to £3,000 per academic year.

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