Back to the future – what can 2020 tell us about 2021 and beyond?

02 January 2021

Our co-Founder Andrew Crisp considers what's on the cards for 2021


More than ever, data has a part to play in decision-making. In a year like no other, to try and second guess how people and organisations will behave, without the insights that data can provide, is an almost impossible task. So as we start 2021, what did the data say in 2020? Over the past year, CarringtonCrisp has delivered four reports looking at future trends in business and higher education alongside our five annual studies with EFMD. Add in a host of data from other sources and you begin to see what the future might hold for business and higher education:

Increasing competition, but growing markets

New products, but also reimagined products

Different modes of delivery for different types of students with different expectations and studying in different ways

New schools in new locations

Transformed employers

All in a market that is extended over time


Increasing competition, but growing markets

For many years, increased competition has been focused on the rise of business schools in Asia. At the start of the year, one of our studies found that 63% of faculty believe schools will face increasing competition leading some schools to merge or close completely. The FT MBA rankings are testament to increased competition with the number of highly ranked Asian schools growing in recent years, and while this will remain a trend, competition will come from other places. Alternative providers such as LinkedIn Learning, Coursera, EdX and FutureLearn will become a larger feature of the business education marketplace. Just under half (44%) of employees said they were aware of LinkedIn Learning and 29% have already used their services in another CarringtonCrisp study. 

The rise of these alternative providers has been enabled by technology, but their growth is down to the flexibility they offer in terms of course duration, starting dates, and study modes as well as cost. The most successful also have brands that are recognised and respected by employers making their qualifications portable in the labour market. 


Different modes of delivery for different types of students with different expectations and studying in different ways

That flexibility is important when 82% of employers urge business schools to build an offer that meets the requirements of lifelong learning. Three-quarters of employers believe that business schools need to develop short, inexpensive programs to deliver relevant skills for those working (76%) and just under half (46%) anticipate online learning becoming the standard approach to developing people in their organization.

Among current students, 53% would prefer blended approaches to any future study, making it more popular than purely face-to-face learning. Among current employees, 29% indicated they are taking some online programs while working from home to enhance their employability. 


A market that is extended over time

The choice of blended study makes sense the more you look at the future employee. Among current students, 56% expect to start a business or work for themselves at some point in their life, 50% expect to change career completely at least once in their lifetime and 41% still expect to be working into their 70s. To deal with these expectations, future employees will need to upskill and reskill throughout their lives, but as commitments grow, whether to families, housing or elsewhere, there is likely to be less interest in full-time degree studies on campus. Instead, boomerang learners will want short, flexible programmes that can be delivered in a just-in-time fashion that meet their immediate skill requirements.

These, and future degree learners, may also have different attitudes to study. Just over four out of ten (42%) current students are motivated to study because they want to explore their potential and a third because they are determined to become an effective and inspiring leader. Yet 37% want to study because they are ambitious to achieve positive change.


New products, but also reimagined products

And this desire for change is perhaps clearest among prospective MBA students who in the most recent version of the Tomorrow’s MBA study indicated that they expected changes to the MBA curriculum. Just over 4 out of 10 (42%) say it is very important that their studies include responsible management, 41% want ethical leadership behaviour, 40% seek to study global challenges such as climate change and poverty, and 39% expect diversity and equality to be part of their studies.

GMAC data in November found a 2.4% increase in global applications for graduate management education compared with a 3.1% decline the previous year. For some this indicated the traditional bounce associated with increased enrolments during times of economic uncertainty. This may be partly true, but the nature of the bounce is far from traditional. MBA applications fell by 0.6%, with much of the bounce down to a 14.3% increase in business Masters applications, in large part this is probably due to pre-experience programmes attracting those uncertain about the jobs market on completion of an undergraduate degree.

Even where MBA applications rose the pattern of demand is far from traditional. Full-time two year MBA degrees attracted a 0.6% increase in applications while the one-year degree rose by a healthy 11.6%. However, applications for part-time self-paced degrees were up by 53%, flexible MBAs by 48.6% and online MBAs by 43.5%. Among Masters degrees there are also signs of a shift from tradition, Masters of Accounting applications rose only 1.8% while Masters of Data Analytics were up by 34.2%. The MBA isn’t about to disappear, but increasingly students appear to be seeking a different type of MBA.

It’s like buying a Tesla. It’s not a cheap alternative, there is still a premium built into the brand. And it still takes you from A to B, just like any other car, but it does so in a different way and provides a different experience.


New schools in new locations

It’s not just what and how students want to learn that is changing, but where they want to study as well. COVID put paid to much international study this year, and while our data suggests that the US and UK remain the most popular choices for international study, Canada is on the rise, chosen by 48% of students as a future study destination compared with just 38% the previous year. Singapore is also more popular, chosen by 15% a year ago and now selected by 40%.

The good news for business schools is that among employees 55% indicate that they have studied at a business school before and this would be their first choice for future learning. Among business school alumni, 54% would like their former school to offer more opportunities for further learning. Demand for study at a business school remains strong, even if it isn’t for a traditional program.


Transformed employers

However, employers express some uncertainty about the business school offer. A third suggest other providers offer programs which better meet their development needs, 31% consider business schools are too theoretical and not sufficiently abreast of the real-world challenges they face, 29% that schools don’t have the specific expertise they are seeking and 27% that they haven’t seen any real impact in the workplace after investing in a business school programme.

Meeting employers needs means understanding their expectations better and 63% believe schools will need a broader curriculum including arts and sciences in the future; collaborations across faculties to deliver broader programmes or business skills in specialist fields may be part of the answer. More than a quarter of employers identified learning priorities for their organisations in digital transformation, equality and diversity, artificial intelligence, productivity and operational efficiency and data analytics and data-driven decision making – not all of which are a natural fit for a business school.

Employers themselves are changing. You only have to look at quotes from two senior business leaders in a study this year: 

“The average age of our workforce is 32, so really young . When it comes to senior managers the places where you struggle is with those colleagues who find it difficult to be inclusive or those who don’t have an active growth mindset. One of our values is ’no egos’. It’s really effective.”

“Eight years on, our founder is still the CEO of the company and he is still holding a weekly meeting from his living room. Anyone in the company (over 3000 staff) can attend via video link) and ask questions, he really does answer them all. It’s a weekly update on numbers, projects and culture with good engagement levels.”

For business schools seeking to build sustainable and successful futures, change is going to dominate agendas over the next few years. Two-thirds of marketing and communications staff believe their school is clearly differentiated from competitors, but 60% think it is becoming more difficult to successfully differentiate. Changing the way schools talk about themselves and position their offer is part of the 2021 conversation and beyond.

Elon Musk was recently quoted as complaining about the MBAisation of American businesses. Maybe it’s time for the Teslaisation of business schools, time for business schools to do something very different.


Thanks to all those business schools who have worked with us in 2020, to our partners in our research, in particular our long standing partner, EFMD, as well as the Executive MBA Council, Linkedin and GMAC and to all those prospective and current students, faculty, alumni, employees and employers who have shared their views through a host of research. We look forward to delivering new insights for business and higher education in 2021.


Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

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