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A survey of 1,500 prospective MBA students from 75 countries (including Canada) finds a slight preference for the full-time, one-year MBA over traditional two-year programs.Getty Images/iStockphoto

A globally competitive, fast-changing MBA market – as is the case today – puts pressure on business schools to be flexible, responsive and innovative to prosper in uncertain times.

"Tomorrow's MBA is being disrupted," concludes a new report on business education by London-based consultants CarringtonCrisp and the non-profit European Foundation for Management Development, citing shifting demands by students, rising expectations of employers and advances in technology.

"For business schools wanting a strong MBA offer, innovation is likely to be a necessity, because sticking with the past could mean missing out on tomorrow's MBA."

Study author Andrew Crisp envisages "a couple of different paths" for MBAs of the future. On one front, top-ranked schools will modify content and delivery but look much as they do today, he predicts, while others will embark on "all sorts of experimentation" to secure their footing in an evolving market.

"Very much out of necessity, there is a drive to innovate," he says.

This year, for the first time, the annual study of 1,500 prospective MBA students from 75 countries (including Canada) found a slight preference for the full-time, one-year MBA over traditional two-year programs.

As well, what students want to study has changed since the first survey conducted seven years ago. Today, one in four students (no matter their ultimate career) wants to study entrepreneurship, up from one in five just a year ago. Project management, technology management and data analytics are newcomers to the current top-10 list of popular content, joining entrepreneurship as an already-hot topic.

Canadian business school leaders say the study's findings ring true for their circumstances. Whether old hands or newly-minted deans, they see escalating pressure to stay relevant with new content, new modes of delivery, additional degree offerings and expanded work internships and study abroad opportunities.

Compared to 2013, when he was named dean of the University of Alberta's school of business, Joseph Doucet says "there is a greater urgency to some of these questions. … We have to move more quickly even though we don't know how long issue X might be an important issue in the market or what issue Y might be next year."

Dr. Doucet, recently reappointed for a second five-year term that begins in July, says schools have to satisfy students, employers and donors while operating in increasingly tight fiscal times for postsecondary education. "It's about being able to offer new and attractive graduate programs, executive education and life-long learning [opportunities]," he says. "Those programs have to respond to the new and evolving needs and demands of the marketplace."

After the success in recent years of a master of financial management delivered in English in Shenzhen, China, the Edmonton school now plans to offer the same degree in Mandarin in Shanghai, Dr. Doucet says. At home, amid growing cross-faculty collaboration, some of his professors and their counterparts in engineering are creating options for undergraduate engineers to earn a minor in business.

At Concordia University's John Molson School of Business in Montreal, where Anne-Marie Croteau was named dean (the first women to hold the position) seven months ago, refreshing course content is a top priority. Currently, she and her colleagues are discussing how to incorporate artificial intelligence, a fast-emerging variable for businesses, into the undergraduate curriculum.

"Let's make sure our students are super-ready when they start a new job," she says.

Meanwhile, as a tool in international student recruitment, her school is seeking accreditation from two Europe-based business education organizations – EQUIS and EMBA. Affiliation with such organizations opens the door to student and faculty exchanges with schools in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As the CarringtonCrisp-EFMD report notes, the average age of applicants to the full-time MBA has dropped to 27 years (from 29 in recent years) while the growth in master specialty programs, with none of the work experience requirement of an MBA, appeals to a younger cohort of recent undergraduates from a range of disciplines.

"The market is getting younger," says Marcia Annisette, associate dean of students at York University's Schulich School of Business in Toronto. Since 2010, Schulich has added seven specialty master programs that cater to recent undergraduates without job experience.

She says some specialty master graduates work for several years and then return to Schulich for one year to complete an MBA that recognizes the content of the specialty master degree. "Effectively we split the MBA in two years," says Dr. Annisette.

She says the report's finding of student enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and marketing fits with the changing nature of work. "We no longer live in an era where we will be an accountant or doctor for life," she says. "It is about constituting yourself as an enterprise."

That focus on flexibility puts the onus on schools to expand delivery modes, such as part-time MBAs and options for online learning, says Ali Dastmalchian, dean of the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University. For example, the Metro Vancouver school offers a part-time evening MBA and, for students in any department, an interdisciplinary certificate in innovation and entrepreneurship.

As well, he says, "we are planning to expand our online options. That is what the market is telling us."

Meanwhile, in a refinement of its full-time MBA this fall, Beedie will require all students to complete an international experience (working on a real project for a client) for their degree.

"The world is a much smaller place now and students need to be exposed to understanding what is going on elsewhere," says Dr. Dastmalchian, a former dean at two other business schools in Western Canada.

In Mr. Crisp's assessment, business schools have no choice but to adapt based on who they are and where they want to stand in a crowded market. "It's the Cub Scout message of, 'Be prepared,'" he says. "The world is not going to stand still and you need to have some options available to insure you have an MBA that will prosper in the future."

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