What if this proves to be the last stand for traditional business education?

11 February 2023

Andrew Crisp looks at some of the challenges on the agenda of business school Deans.


Two Dean’s conferences, two continents, two weeks and two filthy colds, but much to think about.  Two weeks ago I was in Madrid at IE for the EFMD Deans conference where the theme was ‘What if?’.  This week, I’ve been at the AACSB Deans conference in San Antonio, home of The Alamo.

A decade ago, the late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen said in an interview with Wired magazine that, "I think higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse. Generally, universities are doing very well financially, so they don’t feel from the data that their world is going to collapse. But I think even five years from now these enterprises are going to be in real trouble."

Fast forward to San Antonio and the message has got through, even if it has taken more than five years.  One Dean commented to me that higher education is ripe for disruption, if it isn’t already being disrupted.

Having survived the complications of COVID, many schools on the surface are in reasonable health, but the world that they operate in is being rapidly transformed.  Of course, COVID itself has been a major disruptor with the impact of digital delivery.  Almost every study run by CarringtonCrisp in the last six months has seen prospective students express an almost equal preference for blended study as for face-to-face study.  While students don’t necessarily want to study for a degree online (although there is a market for this), they are keen to make the most of the opportunities that technology brings for flexible study that allows them to personalise their experience.

It's not just how students study, but what they study that is also changing.  Employer demands for everything digital are accelerating.  Yet many of the positions that are open are not just about technology, they are also about technology and people.  Employers want staff who understand digital but can also communicate digital, a trend that first appeared in our research a few years ago with growing demands from students for Technology Management degrees.

And as our recent Tomorrow’s MBA study revealed, there is surging interest in adding subjects such as Climate Change, Responsible Management, Business Ethics and Diversity, Equality and Inclusion to MBA degrees.  As with technology, this can be a challenge for business schools as they need to reach beyond traditional business academics into other departments, perhaps adding engineering, science, philosophy, legal and politics academics to their programmes.

Yet much of the focus of recent years has been on academics publishing in specialist research journals rather than in a collaborative space.  Add in an element of demographics with a growing number of academics heading towards retirement, and there is another challenge that business schools face. 

There are many more challenges that could be detailed here, but they all beg the question, what if the future of business education is significantly different from where we are today?  An answer to that question will have to wait for another article, but over the next year CarringtonCrisp hopes to stimulate that debate.

To mark 20 years in business, we are commissioning a series of thought pieces on the future of business education from a host of different perspectives.  Some will be from those with long experience in business education, some will have only just begun their business education journey.  Further details will be available later this month with the publication of the first article and I hope you will join the debate with your thoughts on the future.

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