Every year, BusinessBecause asks deans of top business schools about the most pressing issues affecting the MBA and business education over the coming 12 months.
Last year, deans predicted a greater commitment to social impact and a continuing shift in international student mobility—of course, COVID-19 hit that prediction hard.
Looking to the year ahead, what can business school candidates expect in 2021?
11 Business Education Trends For 2021
1. Greater need for responsible leaders
Dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business
The world navigated three crises simultaneously in 2020: health, economics, and values. However, unlike the Great Recession in 2008, the public developed a greater trust of business in 2020, versus blaming business for the downturn in the economy. In fact, the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that employees want business leaders to help solve society’s problems: 92 percent of employees think it's important that CEOs speak out on one or more issue.
I have always believed in business as a transformational engine for the betterment of the world, but business has a truly unique opportunity to capitalize on this objective in coming years because of public trust. Therefore, as business schools we must double down on developing the type of leaders who can use business as a force for good.
At Duke, we changed our curriculum in 2020 to incorporate themes like how to bring people together with common purpose, leading technology innovation and adopting entrepreneurial mindset. However, our professors have also been updating content to tackle issues like racial equity head on in the classroom. It’s critical that we update and tweak continually, not just at Duke, but in all business schools, to make sure we are developing leaders who meaningfully value difference and can harness it to work toward a common goal.
My prediction is you will see a renewed focus on updating or overhauling curriculum throughout the business school industry in 2021.
2. Strong commitment to lifelong learning
Dean of Nyenrode Business University
Exponential change, driven by technology, will need continuous change of people and organizations. More and more real time valorization of knowledge will take place. Business education will be an ongoing process of lifelong learning and universities will function as knowledge and experience hubs professionals can frequently visit for updates during their careers.
The alumnus of today is the freshman of tomorrow’s program, following and initiating new developments in business.
Next to that, skills and capabilities like dealing with unforeseen circumstances, problem solving, data-analytics, and creativity and innovation will become of more significance in business education.
3. COVID-19 disruption will be normalized
Executive dean of Durham University Business School
The biggest change will be in managing fast, frequent, and fiercely competitive changes. The big disruption has happened, adaptive agility has been required, and in many cases delivered, across all aspects of business school operations, from student attraction, engagement and recruitment, through program development, re-design, delivery to graduation, and alumni relationship management.
The biggest change next year will be normalizing these adaptations and embedding them, improving them, learning from them whilst still developing curricula for the equally disrupted world of work.
4. Technology trends will push business schools to adapt
Interim dean of HEC Paris
Claiming that digital will kill campuses seems like a terrible mistake to me: more than ever, business schools will need to continue to invest in the on-campus experience. However, not anticipating the emergence of new digital competitors would also be a mistake: business schools should prepare for the future by developing new programs that gather online and synchronous content.
Business schools will have to increasingly focus on innovation, technology, and purpose. This is at the heart of HEC Paris’ current strategy. We have recently joined forces with the leading French institution in engineering, Institut Polytechnique, to launch Hi! Paris, a new center with global ambitions in the fields of AI and data science.
5. There’ll be a bigger push for diversity
Dean of London Business School
There needs to be a greater push towards widening participation in business education. We must make business education available and accessible to people from non-traditional backgrounds.
This academic year, London Business School welcomed outstanding students thanks to the Laidlaw Women’s Leadership Fund. Established with the Laidlaw Foundation, the initiative provides significant scholarships to talented women who could not have afforded world-class business education.
[In 2021 we need] more inclusive, more flexible, and more personalized business education, and as always at London Business School, anchored on academic research and enriched by the diversity of our community.
6. Corporate challengers will test business schools
Dean of MIP Politecnico di Milano Graduate School of Business:
I think that the future of the business school will be characterized by increased competition and new entries into the industry by EdTech companies, tech giants such as Google and Microsoft, consulting companies, and executive search organizations.
As a result, business schools will be increasingly required to become more entrepreneurial and to exit their comfort zone, by experimenting new formats, new content, and new delivery channels.
7. The US will become more welcoming to internationals
Dean of Stanford Graduate School of Business
If we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that it’s probably not wise to make predictions for the coming year!
However, I’d like to focus on one specific issue, which is the global role played by US business schools, and the value of welcoming international students to our campuses. This year has been especially difficult for international students, not only because of travel and public health restrictions, but because of the restrictive and volatile nature of US federal rules regarding international student visas.
Stanford has repeatedly joined other universities this year in speaking out against orders from the Department of Homeland Security that would have placed additional restrictions on the ability of international students to study in the US.
International students bring richness and vibrancy to our campuses, and their presence expands the perspective and l earning of all students. International graduates go on to create jobs, build organizations, and innovate in every area of business—in many cases, this happens in the United States. It is my prediction, and hope, that 2021 will bring a more welcoming policy and cultural environment for international students.
8. Education will become more inter-disciplinary
Dean of NEOMA Business School
We need to foster new types of skills for our students, that combine technical skills, soft skills, and creativity. As Professor Lynda Gratton points out, at a time when many tasks will be partly carried out by machines (artificial intelligence for cognitive tasks, robots for manual tasks), "it is human 'soft skills' that will become more and more important, skills such as empathy, a sense of context, the ability to work with others, [and] creativity".
We need to prepare our students for jobs that do not exist yet, teaching them how to learn again and again, and how to permanently question standard practice and approaches. These profound evolutions will also lead to more multidisciplinary programs based on strong partnerships between business schools and engineering, design, art, and craftsmanship schools, as well as with social sciences.
9. There'll be a growing demand for green business leaders
Professor Tam Kar Yan
Dean of HKUST Business School
Many global problems, including climate change, water shortage, and public health challenges like the recent COVID-19 pandemic, need a huge amount of public and private funding and investment globally.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development (OECD) estimates that as much as $7 trillion will be needed each year up to 2030 to meet climate and development objectives.
It is expected that there will be a growing and stronger demand for sustainability and green finance talent in the years ahead. It is an emerging intellectual cross-disciplinary subject, involving experts and scholars from environmental science and engineering, business and finance where business schools can play a key role to bridge the knowledge and talent gap.
10. Hybrid learning is here to stay
Inge Jan Henjesand
President of BI Norwegian Business School
Without a doubt, [a growing trend is] the way we offer digital teaching as an integrated part of our program portfolio and the way technology is transforming our business models. Prior to this year, the preferred teaching method of delivery was face-to-face, either on campus or at the client site for specialized executive programs.
While there has been a gradual shift toward remote learning in the last decade, the pandemic caused business schools to innovate at a much more rapid pace, implementing both digital and hybrid models.
11. Business education will get personal
Dean of IESE Business School
Business schools will get better at forming the whole person, and helping leaders get to know themselves and their deepest motives a lot better. There’s currently so much missing in this area, and so much need. That’s why everyone is talking about purpose.
Look at the success of a class given by Arthur Brooks at Harvard right now on Happiness. He spoke to our MBA class this year about what brings people most satisfaction in their lives—and it’s not a bigger paycheck! I think we will see more and emphasis in this regard. Some of it is already on the way with the growth of coaching and an interest in business leaders getting to know themselves better: not only their strengths but also their weaknesses, and what are the factors that move them besides money.
What to watch in 2021?
The lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be felt throughout the business school community in 2021. Hybrid models of teaching will be normalized, and schools will have to balance safety measures on campus with a virtual teaching format that still delivers on the value propositions of networking, upskilling, and career success.
There will be challengers to traditional business education programs. The emergence of new EdTech firms alongside the likes of Google certifications and McKinsey's Academy could push some business schools to reassess what they offer candidates.
The business schools to watch in 2021 will be those that adapt to the challenges, drive change, and push for positive impact.