From boomerangs to Mars – a year of change for business education

23 December 2020

Our co-Founder Andrew Crisp reviews what we've learnt though 2020.


At the start of 2020 (that seems an awful long time ago) I read an interview with the then Minister for Education in Singapore, Ong Ye Kung, in which he said “Singaporeans will have to move away from the idea of "frontloading" education, that is, completing all their study before going out to work”. It was one of a number of important points that the Minister made about the future of work and learning, and I’ve quoted the article often during this year. The Minister also talked about NUS enrolling undergraduates for 20 years not 3 or 4 years and making them part of a learning community.

The same themes have been prevalent in our research throughout the year, whether in See the Future with EFMD and GMAC, in A new era for higher education with LinkedIn, in New Ways of Working and Learning with the Executive MBA Council and, most recently, in one of our annual surveys with EFMD, Alumni Matters.

Some might suggest that this is nothing new, that the MOOCs heralded a new agenda for lifelong learning when they started to become popular almost a decade ago. And there is some truth in this. By the end of 2018, more than 100 million people had tried a MOOC and over 900 universities had launched 11,400 MOOCs. MOOC-based degrees now have more than 10,000 enrolled students. Undoubtedly, the MOOCs have been a driver of new ways of learning, even if completion rates have not always been what had been hoped for.

Today, the market for lifelong learning seems to be moving further and faster. In part, this is the COVID accelerator. Trends that were already in the market are moving faster than before. Working from home has opened up possibilities for learners that they hadn’t considered before. In our study for the Executive MBA Council, 29% of employees said they had taken ‘some online programs while working from home to enhance their employability’, 44% have heard of LinkedIn Learning and 29% have already used this service.

Add in an expectation of working longer, whether as a result of increased longevity or state pension benefits being pushed back to older ages, and tomorrow’s employee will have a different career experience from those of previous generations. In See the Future, 49% of current students expect to change career completely at least once in their lifetime, 41% expect to still be working into their 70s and 83% know that they will have to learn new skills to advance their career in the future.

At the same time, employers are in many cases playing catch-up, seeking to enable the digital transformation of their businesses. All this means embracing new technologies and working practices, as well as diverse and multi-generational workforces, both of which are driving demand for new skills from current and future staff.

While MOOCs may have made what is happening now possible, there are a host of other factors that are now driving the lifelong learning market. Technology is undoubtedly an enabler of more flexible approaches to learning, but it is the demand for new ways of learning and new content that is moving the learning market forward.

And all this means that business schools and other providers need to think about what they can do to meet the needs of new types of learners. Can schools leverage their alumni relationships to create ‘boomerang learners’ who will return to their previous institution to upskill and reskill? Or will those in their 30s, 40s, 50s and more look to different or new providers in their quest for flexible, cheaper and smarter ways to learn?

Business schools and universities are, in many cases, already under considerable financial pressure as a result of a drop in income caused by the pandemic. With increasing competitive pressures from an Edtech market that is growing quickly, schools will need to find new ways to work, new products to deliver and new business models to thrive in the future. In a recent webinar someone suggested getting ahead of Elon Musk and setting up the Mars Business School. Higher education may not need to go that far, but it's certainly time for some new thinking.


CarringtonCrisp will continue to focus on these changes in 2021 with a new study, ‘The future of lifelong and executive education’, which will run from January to March. To find out more, contacts us at

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