MUNICH, GERMANY - MAY 27: A student studies in the library of Technical University Munich (TUM) during the coronavirus crisis on May 27, 2020 in Munich, Germany. In-person classes for the current summer semester have been cancelled and students are following classes remotely. Whether students will be able to return for the winter semester, which begins in October, remains uncertain. (Photo by Andreas Gebert/Getty Images)
Room for improvement: A student at work in a university library in Munich last month. Many business schools are still deciding how to balance face-to-face with remote learning in the next academic year © Getty

Business school deans such as Alice Guilhon are having to practise what they teach with swift managerial changes to cope with the disruption caused by coronavirus. When France entered lockdown in March, Prof Guilhon, the dean of Skema business school, was forced not only to rethink teaching practices, but also to meet new welfare needs.

“We have a lot of international students and it was important to check on them, to be with them to tackle the feeling of being isolated,” she says.

Like her counterparts in finance masters’ programmes and other education courses under way around the world, she scrambled to sustain, restructure and replace internships and work projects for students as employers closed their offices.

Most important, in just two days, Prof Guilhon oversaw a switch to “remote learning” — involving extensive interaction and contact, and going far beyond passive viewing of lessons shifted online because of social distancing restrictions. “Our speakers were connected to students, and we asked faculty to act as coaches,” she says.

Now, finance course directors are turning their attention to the coming academic year against a continued backdrop of uncertainty.

Alice Guilhon, dean of SKEMA Business School
Crisis management: Skema dean Alice Guilhon moved quickly to rethink teaching practices and to meet students' welfare needs when coronavirus struck France

Yet a common theme among the better courses is robust demand.

Heidi Pickett, assistant dean for the masters in finance (MiF) programme at MIT, will be among the first to see how a record intake of 140 students react to a revised menu when her next course’s first term begin in July. “We’re looking at many scenarios,” she says, outlining a flexible mixture of “hybrid” learning that combines face-to-face with remote learning depending on how the pandemic evolves.

But she sees no need to cut tuition fees. “Our expectation is that we can deliver the same or a better experience,” she says.

The fact that MIT is starting its next MiF online has at least one advantage: it provides breathing space. The closure of consulates around the world means there is a big backlog in the processing of visas, but the large number of MIT international students will be able to study initially from their own countries.

The Lee Kong Chian School of Business at Singapore Management University also has many foreign students, and applications for its MSc in finance in the next academic year are up more than 50 per cent, with a quarter more places being offered than usual. “Our yield has improved,” says Gerry George, the dean. “About half of our offers are to Chinese [people]. Students are choosing to stay regional.”

He says that this partly reflects a sense of assurance among Asian families that the region has managed the pandemic effectively, as well as a desire among students finishing undergraduate studies to remain in education during such uncertain times. “Those who are graduating are thinking if they cannot easily get a job, they might as well do another year,” Prof George says.

Heidi Pickett -- Assistant Dean, Master of Finance Program | MIT Sloan
MIT's Heidi Pickett anticipates delivering 'the same or a better experience' for the next student intake, even via remote learning

Chris Higson, academic director of the MiF programme at London Business School, also says demand is “in great shape” for both his course and the pre-experience masters in financial management. “Our programmes are in rude good health,” he says. “Doing a masters has a countercyclical element, which we also saw after the 2008 financial crisis. If the job market is uncertain, it’s a good time to spend that year studying you had always dreamt of.”

He says the question of “what can finance do for the world of coronavirus” is already being embedded in the curriculum for the coming academic year.

He is actively seeking up-to-date examples to bring to his own teaching.

“I’m already feasting my eyes on examples of corporate failure, looking at the accounts. It will obviously provide rich pickings,” he says.

Frank Bournois, head of ESCP, the French business school, says “we are adjusting our programmes because the financial sector is changing.”

He highlights the growing importance of ethics and responsible finance, as well as the subject’s social aspects. “We are navigating the biggest crisis since the second world war and so we are living through profound changes in the way investors look at risk,” he says.

Just as students and employers will be seeking expertise in new skills, Marwa Hammam, executive director of the MiF programme at Cambridge Judge Business School, sees continued appetite from companies for both internships and recruitment in the months ahead.

She, too, points to positive outcomes for graduates after 2008.

“The job market hasn’t been so dire. We haven’t really had a single company that’s said it’s not interested in engaging with students,” she says. “Our advice to students is to be flexible, and pivot into sectors where there is growth: corporate restructuring, distressed debt, regulation, research roles in risk management and compliance.

“Careers are never a straight line. You can take a detour.”

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