Falling employer backing for executive MBAs drives self-funding
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The turmoil that rocked Credit Suisse in March not only imperilled the Swiss bank’s stability; it also reverberated in the business education sector, affecting the traditional practice of companies paying for their senior bankers to attend executive MBA courses.
“Credit Suisse was always willing to finance [EMBA programmes], but now they say they need to see what happens with UBS,” says Karolin Frankenberger, the academic director of the EMBA HSG programme at the University of St Gallen in Switzerland.
The lender’s shift in stance, as it is absorbed by UBS, is not an isolated change; it typifies a broader trend. Employers spanning industries worldwide are re-evaluating their historical financial support for EMBAs. “Lots of companies can invest in their own training programmes — they can just copy an EMBA,” says Prof Frankenberger.
A decade ago, in 2013, 24 per cent of EMBA participants had their tuition fees paid in full by their employers. By last year, the proportion was only 16 per cent, according to the Executive MBA Council (Embac), an academic association.
As corporate purse strings tighten amid economic uncertainty, employer funding is waning, pushing more students to bear the financial burden themselves. Embac notes the percentage of fully self-funded students has risen from 41 per cent to 56 per cent over the same period.
This indicates more than just employers’ financial restraint. Prof Frankenberger says some candidates are choosing to decline funding offers, to evade the shackles of lengthy employment contracts or the obligation to reimburse tuition fees upon departure — conditions often attached to corporate funding arrangements.
“In the past you stayed with the company for 40 years. This is not the case anymore,” she notes.
Hannes Klockenhoff illustrates this shift. Rejecting his previous employer’s offer to pay some of the fees, Klockenhoff — now head of drywall market management at building materials group Knauf Gips — opted to personally finance the €53,000 annual EMBA tuition at Germany’s Mannheim Business School.
Based in Stuttgart, Klockenhoff also funded another several thousand euros in travel expenses, reflecting his desire for autonomy. “I was in a luxurious position, but in the end, I did not want to owe my time to anybody,” he says.
While schools report that company-wide sponsorship programmes are dwindling, they note the continuation of partial funding for EMBA candidates — particularly against the backdrop of a persistently competitive labour market.
This chimes with the FT’s data, gathered from schools participating in the 2023 EMBA ranking process. The proportion of students receiving full or partial sponsorship is down to 52 per cent from 63 per cent in 2016 but the data reveals that partial sponsorship has remained relatively stable over the past eight years.
“Often, the ones that do get sponsorship are the high-potentials in companies . . . retention is a key factor,” says Arnold Longboy, the executive director of recruitment and admissions for London Business School.
At LBS, 52 per cent of last year’s London-based EMBA intake received some form of company contribution — higher than the average of the previous four years: 31 per cent. Beyond financial assistance, Longboy underscores the significance of study leave. This is a form of employer assistance that helps with the intensive schedule of an EMBA, which is usually studied alongside full-time work and is sometimes wryly described as the “divorce course”.
LBS also plans to double its overall scholarship budget over the next five years. Traditionally, business schools have tended to allocate more financial resources to full-time MBA candidates, who forgo their salaries to return to education. The mix is now changing, as schools look to entice top EMBA candidates with scholarships. “It’s a major topic of interest,” Longboy says.
EMBA programmes are also undergoing changes beyond financing. As industries evolve, the curriculum is adapting to meet the changing demands of the corporate world.
Ser Keng Ang, the academic director of the EMBA course at Singapore Management University’s Lee Kong Chian School of Business, says the degree’s value extends beyond technical competencies, as schools increasingly prioritise the cultivation of leadership skills such as strategic thinking. “The danger of getting too technical is you start to have silos,” he says.
Traditional programme designs, he adds, have been compartmentalised into disciplines such as finance and marketing. However, as participants ascend the corporate ladder, they need to learn how to manage across various functions. “The job we have is to design something that bridges across,” Ang says.
In the same vein, EMBA participants are increasingly tasked with leading across cultures. In a global business environment, Kathy Harvey, associate dean for MBA and executive degrees at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, says that international diversity within EMBA cohorts offers a unique platform for honing skills in cross-cultural collaboration: “It’s very hard to fast-track that kind of training, but an EMBA can facilitate that.”
Meanwhile, a survey among EMBA alumni of Mannheim Business School has highlighted a preference for a more holistic approach to leadership development over fleeting management fads. That said, Jens Wüstemann, the school’s president, points to a growing employer demand for courses focused on environmental, social and governance (ESG) matters.
In response, Mannheim has dedicated 20 per cent of the content in each EMBA module to ESG issues. “[Employers] want topics they see as having the utmost importance to future generations,” Wüstemann says.
Ways to pay for an executive MBA
Employer sponsorship is typically tied to an agreement that the participant will continue working for the sponsoring company for a specified period.
Self-funding is when students pay from personal savings, investments or other resources, providing greater flexibility in their career choices.
Scholarships can be based on various criteria, such as academic excellence, professional achievements, leadership potential and diversity.
Loans are issued by government and private institutions, helping students cover tuition fees and related expenses. Interest will be paid on the loan.
Grants and fellowships are offered by various organisations, industry associations and foundations to support people pursuing advanced degrees.
Crowdfunding platforms enable EMBA candidates to gather financial support from family, friends, colleagues or even strangers.