Online business education programmes are still proving popular despite a drop in demand for campus-based MBAs amid a buoyant jobs market and inflationary pay environment.
According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, overall applications for MBAs fell 6.5 per cent last year after two consecutive years of growth, as plum job offers and better pay kept people in the workforce.
Online courses are proving a strong draw, however, even as employment levels defy a wider economic slowdown.
Although the virtual study boom driven by the Covid-19 pandemic is abating in the US, with GMAC recording lower applications for 76 per cent of online MBA courses last year, providers say the global picture is more nuanced.
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They have found that the economic forces pushing people away from campus-taught MBAs are the same factors pulling people into online programmes — despite the two learning formats serving different demographics. Online MBAs typically appeal to older, more senior working professionals who want to hold on to their job.
“When labour markets are tight, when there are good opportunities, we see a preference for doing an MBA alongside a job,” explains Markus Perkmann, academic director of MBA programmes at Imperial College Business School in London.
He adds that application numbers for Imperial’s online MBA are above pre-pandemic levels. “I think the online MBA segment has firmly established itself as an independent category of business education,” Perkmann says. “We’re quite confident that this is a permanent feature of the MBA market, too.”
In a sign that online learning is being further legitimised, some of the oldest and most prestigious US business schools are launching virtual degree programmes, expanding supply in a corner of higher education that is still, to some extent, looked down upon.
Before Covid, many schools feared that digital courses would cannibalise demand for campus-taught programmes. Instead, the past few years have shown the two forms of learning can work in harmony. Additionally, schools are finding that online learning can reach a new audience of people that would not otherwise consider business education.
In August, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School announced its first “blended” executive MBA, which mixes digital and campus-taught education, with classes starting in May. “I don’t think this will displace our existing model,” says Brian Bushee, senior vice dean of teaching and learning at Wharton. “There’s another set of people who are not even considering getting MBAs and that’s the market we can reach with online education.”
It is also becoming clear that the technology used to deliver online courses is reaching a tipping point, schools say. The pandemic pushed institutions to make investments in online delivery methods that more closely replicate the traditional classroom experience. “This is a quantum leap forward from Zoom,” says Bushee of Wharton School’s investment.
Moreover, the provision of online business courses has expanded beyond the realms of academia, to alternative online course providers. The UK’s FutureLearn, which partners with 260 universities and other organisations to offer online courses and degrees, has doubled the size of its course catalogue over the past three years.
Astrid deRidder, vice-president of content and learning at FutureLearn, says this points to a growing commitment to online education from teaching faculty. “We’ve seen more institutions partnering with us and a greater willingness to engage in digital pedagogy,” she observes. “People have also realised you cannot just take a PowerPoint and stick it on YouTube and call it a course.”
While demand for FutureLearn’s courses is lower than it was amid the pandemic bonanza — when people were confined at home in lockdown — it remains higher than it was pre-Covid. This suggests that virtual methods of study are here to stay.
What is more, there has been significant growth in the acceptance of online learning among companies, according to GMAC. The global percentage of employers who view graduates of digital and campus-taught programmes equally increased from 34 per cent in 2021 to 60 per cent last year. Schools say the normalisation of hybrid working environments has contributed to this shift in perception.
“I think employers will become more accepting because their own working practices are so radically different to what they were a few years ago,” says Jamie Breen, assistant dean for MBA programmes at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. The school’s new blended evening and weekend MBA programme is oversubscribed. About 70 students enrolled last year, above Breen’s estimates.
However, employer acceptance is lagging in the US, where the proportion of companies who told GMAC that they consider online and in-person MBAs to be equal has fallen to 29 per cent, from 33 per cent in 2021.
“The inference is that some recruiters don’t see online programmes delivering on the soft skills side,” says Norman Kurtis, dean of programmes at IE Business School in Spain. “One of the big sources of value for our graduates is training in behavioural skills, but it’s what is most difficult to replicate online.”
Nevertheless, Kurtis and peers in the industry are bullish on the future of online learning: applications to IE’s online MBA rose 4 per cent last year and by the same amount in 2021.
Beyond MBA degrees, demand is growing for more regular, specialist and skills-based courses to help workers keep up with the rapid pace of change in business.
“Gone are the days when you study for one degree and work the rest of your life,” says Anant Agarwal, founder and chief executive of online course provider edX. “It’s become increasingly clear that life-long upskilling and reskilling — at the same time as working — is going to be the norm.”
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