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Brandon Celi/The Globe and Mail

When Cody Littlefield decided on a career pivot last January, he chose a master of business administration degree as a reliable way to leapfrog from one industry to another. The 32-year-old former United States Army logistics officer, married to a Canadian and working part-time in Toronto, is considering pursuing a career in marketing or joining a startup.

In September, he began a two-year MBA at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management with the aim of broadening his skills and expanding his network. He also hoped an internship, which is part of the program, could lead to full-time employment.

Even after the COVID-19 pandemic struck Canada in March—forcing business schools into remote delivery almost overnight—he remained optimistic about studying on campus this fall. “I had looked at some U.S. schools online, and I really did not want to do it online,” he says. “Look where I am now.”

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The same could be said of graduate business schools that built their reputations on offering relationship-focused, network-rich, in-class experiences for those pursuing an MBA, a specialty master’s or an executive MBA. Now, much like their students, these schools must learn new survival skills, including how to be nimble, manage disruption and rewrite their value proposition in the time of COVID-19. It’s not easy.

“This has been an incredible disrupter,” says Caryn Beck-Dudley, president of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, a global accrediting body. “The challenge for business schools is to take a 600-year-old model, which is what higher education is, and convert it to a next-century model on the fly.”

Over the past six months—often with little online teaching experience—campus-based business schools raced to repurpose content, experiential learning opportunities, career support and networking for a virtual environment.

“We were on a huge learning curve,” says Julie Perrin-Halot, associate dean and director of quality, strategy and international development at France’s Grenoble Ecole de Management. “Like most higher education institutions, we have been flirting with online for a long time, doing pieces here and there. All of a sudden, we had to roll it out massively.”

This fall, her school ran a week-long virtual orientation for the 700 students in its flagship master’s in management program. Students, each assigned an avatar, were thrust into an immersive experience to foster engagement, and work on individual and group assignments (including one tied to United Nations sustainability goals) designed to teach business concepts and digital skills.

The exercise “appears to have achieved the objective of making these new students feel they are part of a school and a community, even without having been physically present yet,” Perrin-Halot stated in a follow-up email.

Other schools had scant time to adjust.

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Most programs have a fall intake, but Western University’s Ivey Business School welcomed its incoming MBA cohort as usual on March 6. That face-to-face instruction lasted four days before the campus, like the rest of higher education, closed because of COVID-19.

The school had three business days to convert to virtual delivery. Guided by a few faculty members' experiences with asynchronous learning, Ivey drew inspiration from its recently introduced hybrid MBA for working professionals with an undergraduate degree. The program was built to be 40% online and 60% in class.

“Thank God we had these,” says Sharon Hodgson, dean of Ivey. “We repurposed the [hybrid degree] assets across a number of programs.”

Ivey turned to alumni for financial support (including classroom renovations to comply with COVID-19 safety measures) and student mentoring, along with a $500,000 donor-backed fund to offer travel support for international students, computer and internet upgrades for students, and counselling for those feeling isolated. The school introduced a virtual speaker series that featured top executives, many of them Ivey alumni, discussing their real-time handling of the pandemic.

Like business schools worldwide, Ivey refused to discount its tuition for learning online.

“We are demonstrating the value proposition,” says Hodgson. “We said, ‘We are not going to reduce your tuition; we are going to increase the value with some of these other programs.’”

Only four of the 169-person MBA class deferred or withdrew. Kathryn Donville, an MBA student who graduates next year, chose to stick with her studies. “At the time, the big concern was that the quality of education was going to suffer if we were not there in person,” she says.

Choosing Ivey for its case-method teaching, one-year program and deep alumni network, Donville gives high marks for the academic instruction that now includes explicit training in online etiquette. Still, she strongly prefers in-person learning and is thrilled to have been back in the classroom since August.

A virtual three-day networking event—a program highlight usually held in person in Toronto in June—was “one of the bigger disappointments.” Donville blames the pandemic, not the school, for a lower-than-normal turnout of companies and communication snags, as some recruiters failed to turn on their cameras for two-way conversations with students. “I didn’t really get a chance to make any meaningful connections because I did it through the computer,” she says.

espite significant continuing uncertainties tied to travel restrictions placed on international students—a rich revenue source—school officials are relieved by the relative strength of the sector.

Before the pandemic, Canadian business schools were poised for a banner year. The post-COVID-19 picture is uneven: stable to slight drops in MBA enrolment; spikes in interest in pre-experience specialty master’s degrees, such as data analytics; and relatively soft demand for executive MBA programs.

In Montreal, Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business attracted a record 330 MBA applicants for 2020, but a 25% drop in international enrolment and a high number of overseas deferrals yielded a class of 64 students, slightly below last year. Domestic demand also fed growth in Molson’s specialty master’s programs in supply chain, finance and marketing.

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To wavering applicants, Rotman vice-dean Joe Milner advises: “Business is moving forward and not taking the year off, so you might as well start your MBA now.” His sentiment is widely shared by other schools.

With some exceptions, executive education is a soft spot. “When COVID shut things down, the feeling was this was going to be a nightmare on the recruiting side,” says Michael Desiderio, executive director of the Executive MBA Council. “The big sell [of executive education] has been the face-to-face component,” he says.

Earlier this year, Samantha Bureau, assistant executive director of the Ottawa-based Concussion Legacy Foundation, signed up for the Executive MBA Americas program offered by Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business and New York–based Cornell University. In June, she began the program. “If I defer, I am just deferring an extra year from having that degree and that credibility,” says Bureau. With less work-related travel, she says she has more time for her studies.

Some of her program was already delivered online, but COVID-19 restrictions ruled out the traditional residential component for the 172-person class. Instead, as an opening-night icebreaker, Bureau and her classmates were assigned to virtual teams to solve a murder mystery. “Sometimes we had 20 people on the screen asking questions,” she says. “It was a cool, fluid activity.”

At some schools, COVID-19-induced adversity sparked opportunities to rethink content that would equip students for a digital economy. “I think none of us has paid so much attention to the learning experience as we are now, and that is great,” says Anne-Marie Croteau, dean of the John Molson School of Business.

Last May, because of COVID-19, her school cancelled an overseas trip integral to an executive MBA program. Instead, professors designed a virtual seminar on managing in a pandemic, featuring health care professionals, business leaders and others on the front line. “We need to be nimble,” says Croteau.

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At Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, even without in-person sessions, students sign up for virtual “boot camps” on topics such as new software applications and case competition preparation. Successful participants earn micro-credentials for their LinkedIn profiles. As well, the school recently introduced so-called “pop-up” lectures—bite-sized virtual learning led by an expert over the course of a few days or a weekend—worth one to three credits.

“The pop-up is not because of COVID, but COVID is validating the idea,” says Daphne Taras, dean of Rogers.

Even as they edge closer to returning to face-to-face instruction, schools are unlikely to abandon one advantage of virtual learning—the ability to reach experts who cannot attend class in person.

“We are seeing all kinds of unique ways of engaging global participants in our virtual classrooms because of the nature of the technology,” says Catherine Heggerud, MBA program director at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business. For a recent virtual class, she invited a guest speaker from Houston. “I wouldn’t be able to invite him to come up for a half-hour talk, but he could easily do it from home,” she says. “It was really well received.”

For schools—and students—the pandemic disrupted another bread-and-butter ingredient of graduate business education: paid internships. Last April, alarmed by the potential loss of summer internships in the midst of a pandemic, the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business approached Mitacs, a national research organization that works with academia and industry on industrial and social innovation. The Business Strategy Internship Program, piloted at Sauder in June and later rolled out nationally, generated 413 internships (193 of them for master’s-level students) that allow students to assist startups and small businesses affected by COVID-19, according to a Mitacs spokesperson. Over four months, students each earned a $10,000 stipend, funded by universities, participating employers and Mitacs.

“Honestly, if we, as a business school, don’t mobilize, then who will?” asks Martina Valkovicova, assistant dean at Sauder’s Hari Varshney Business Career Centre, of the overture to Mitacs. “It also speaks to the brand of the school that if our school is going to be doing everything we can to help the students and the employers, there will be a return on investment in the future.”

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Through the program, full-time Sauder MBA student Ishpreet Brar landed an internship with Castofly Technologies Inc., a Vancouver startup with a cloud-based educational technology platform for teachers to share and create video content. Before his summer internship ended, India-born Bhar had secured a job with the company. “The value of an MBA at a top school is that it accelerates the timeline for building a network by at least a couple of years,” says Bhar. “That’s huge.”

Elsewhere, business schools are collaborating with pandemic-hammered employers to create job opportunities for students. The Faculty of Business at the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus requires students in its one-year MBA program to conduct nine-week business consulting projects for local companies, including the city’s growing information technology sector. The exercise was tweaked so that students applied online skills learned in the program to the pandemic problems their company clients faced, says Shelley Rinehart, faculty MBA chair. All 93 members of the MBA class landed placements, of which 60 were paid. “It bodes well for their employability post-graduation,” says Rinehart.

Even with an eventual return to campus, schools cannot escape the pandemic-accelerated scrutiny of the role of business—and business education—in society. “The core challenge for business schools is figuring out what it is we need to teach in this environment...one characterized by a pandemic, a climate emergency, toxic inequality and a desire for business to address these issues, but a slowness of business to do that,” says Peter Tufano, dean of the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

Earlier this year, after going online because of COVID-19, the school announced a Dean’s Response Fund for paid student internships; a program for Saïd students to advise small businesses harmed by the COVID-19 crisis; and a health stream in its Creative Destruction Lab for the development of COVID-related managerial decision-making tools. In an agreement with Oxford city council, the school also turned over 12 rooms in its temporarily vacated executive education residence to the homeless.

“We have been using some pretty high-minded language since I became dean,” says Tufano, who will wrap up a decade-long term in 2021. “Tackling world-scale problems and supporting business with purpose. If we were going to live those words, this seemed to be the time to rise to the occasion.”

As for Littlefield, he remains firmly committed to completing his Rotman MBA despite having a preference for returning to an actual campus. “I am so 100% doing this,” he says. “COVID and going online didn’t subtract from that. This is going to push me in the right direction.”

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