Technology allowed people who would not have come to campus to take courses remotely
Technology allowed people who would not previously have come to campus to take executive courses remotely © Charlie Bibby/FT

Coronavirus robbed business school short courses of one of their biggest selling points: the chance for executives to spend a few focused days immersed in the academic atmosphere of a campus.

While business degree programmes thrived, executive education providers were hit hard by the pandemic. At Audencia Business School in Nantes, western France, executive education revenues halved between April and December 2020, which director-general Christophe Germain blames on the closure of the school’s campus buildings.

“Participants in executive education want to be on campus,” he says. “Even if you can add things to the experience mix in the future with online content . . . people want to come on campus.”

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It was a similar picture at other highly ranked institutions. London Business School, which was forced to close its Regent’s Park base for most of 2020 because of lockdown measures, reported a 34 per cent drop in executive education revenue in its accounts for the 2019-20 financial year.

At Insead, revenue from executive education was down 20 per cent in 2019-20, according to its annual report, although these courses still generated 32 per cent of the French school’s total.

But the past year has also focused the minds of executive education programme organisers. The most dynamic teams have developed online teaching techniques that can better serve clients’ needs, and digital delivery of courses has allowed schools to reach people who would never previously have been able to come to campus.

“The pandemic has been an accelerator of things that were already happening,” says Jan Ginneberge, senior adviser for corporate services at the European Foundation for Management Development, the business school accreditation body. “No one can now afford to say, ‘I am not tech savvy.’ We are all in the same boat.”

While campuses have been closed, Ginneberge says, partnerships with online course platforms — such as edX, Coursera and 2U — have been key to business schools running new or updated short courses that are both relevant to changing times and of a quality clients expect.

Executive education at Insead was down 20 per cent in 2019-20
Executive education revenues were down 20 per cent at Insead in 2019-20 but still generated a third of the total for the school © Richard Davies

“Business schools say they would like to do everything if you give them the time to prepare, but in the last year corporate clients were not prepared to wait,” he says. “Those that were capable of building alliances with platforms got ahead.”

Another successful strategy during the pandemic has been to adapt existing courses to make them work as digital programmes. The most successful of these have also found they can reach far larger audiences with executive education courses, making them more attractive to corporate clients.

ESMT Berlin’s executive education revenues in 2020 were two-thirds of those the year before. But Harald Hungenberg, dean of programmes, says the school was able to retain interest in courses in part by designing online delivery that improved on the campus experience. “Online also gives us scale,” he says. “For one client in the automotive industry, we were able to have 5,000 executives participating in the same session by running it online. If we had wanted to do that in person, we would have needed a football stadium.”

Schools that were already investing heavily in technology have been among those that have made the best of the pandemic. Imperial College Business School in London was able to draw on its edtech team — a group of computer science experts who have been building online courses for the institution for several years. The team took eight of the school’s most popular executive education programmes and quickly turned them into online courses, doubling the number of participants on each.

The gains from transforming the programmes did not offset a 30 per cent reduction in revenues from the school’s customised executive education course business, but it brought Imperial’s short courses to a much wider audience — including the first executive education students from Costa Rica, Nepal, Indonesia and Mexico.

A selling point of short courses that are run online is the lower cost to the student or the employer. “One of the dirty secrets of executive education is that the travel and living expenses are often as much as the course fees, but these often do not get noticed because they come from different budgets,” says David Brown, Imperial’s director of executive education.

The popularity of online executive education sometimes depends on the type of course and audience. At EMLyon Business School in France, revenues from custom executive education programmes were down 20 per cent last year on 2019, reflecting a 40.9 per cent fall in client numbers after the school lost several smaller corporate customers.

However, revenue from EMLyon’s open programmes rose 2 per cent, thanks to new students registering for programmes now taught fully online. For example, participants on the Executive Master in General Management open enrolment course more than doubled from 98 to 226 and the short programme Objective: Board of Directors attracted 127 participants, up from 67 in 2019.

“For some managers, online is a better way to study because they can do the training outside work hours,” says Annabel-Mauve Bonnefous, director of degree programmes at EMLyon. “But for our tailor-made courses, clients often want their people to meet others in their organisation while training to build informal networks, so an online operation is not for them.”

For many, the pandemic has been the time when digital delivery came of age in executive education, suggesting the business schools that prosper in the future will be those that embrace the change and adapt to the new reality.

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