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Campus-based networks were key in Hannah Schmidt-Wolf’s choice of school © Gregg Thorne

Hannah Schmidt-Wolf was given a rude awakening when she arrived at Insead’s French campus last September: a late-night assignment to rapidly trace her contacts from the past seven days.

“They did it as a wake-up call,” says the 24-year-old German of the mock drill. She did contract coronavirus in November but experienced mild symptoms and made a full recovery.

Insead’s ability to bring students to its campuses in Fontainebleau, near Paris, and Singapore was an important reason Schmidt-Wolf applied to its master in management (MiM) programme, despite the health risk. “The pandemic influenced which business school I applied to,” she says. “A big part of the degree is the network and friends you make. I was just not up for doing a year of online study.”

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London Business School is ranked fourth in the league table

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While many schools were forced to adapt to remote teaching to help reduce infection levels, about two-thirds of Insead’s MiM course was delivered face-to-face last year. This was made possible by frequent Covid testing along with isolating infected students and tracing their contacts. There is also reduced student mixing and, at the time of writing, face coverings are still required.

The wide-ranging health protocols illustrate how far the pandemic has changed business school life. Thibault Séguret, Insead’s MiM programme director, is having to balance safety with the desire to keep teaching facilities open as far as possible. “You learn through that human connection with people and applying it in a real-life setting,” he says. “That’s what our professors are leveraging in every single class. There’s definitely an added value that is a bit hard to quantify.”

A male student with a face mask, raising his hand in class
Health protocols have changed business school life

Across the world, business schools are set to reopen from this month, albeit with coronavirus measures in place. While many schools are looking to incorporate technology into their degree programmes, they still see face-to-face lessons as the gold standard of business education. “We don’t think in the long run students can do the full programme at a distance,” says Felix Papier, dean of pre-experience programmes at Essec Business School in France. “We think the face-to-face classes provide a better quality of teaching, in terms of the discussion being more engaging and students making lots of connections with people on the campus.” Papier says all MiM students will start their course at Essec in the autumn, with about 25 per cent of the programme set to be delivered online.

A significant and divisive theme this year is vaccinations. Many universities in the US say full vaccination against Covid-19 is compulsory for students who wish to attend campus this autumn. Student protests have erupted across the country in opposition, with critics saying that mandating vaccination is unethical. There are also fears the policies could deter racial minorities, among whom lower vaccination rates have been attributed to issues of access and hesitancy.

Duke University in North Carolina says students must submit proof of full vaccination, unless they have an approved medical or religious exemption. Russ Morgan, senior associate dean for full-time programmes at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, says the measure is about safeguarding the welfare of students, faculty and staff. “Far from a deterrent, it helps students think about where they are comfortable going to school,” he adds. “It’s had more of an inviting effect.”

In many other countries where the pace of vaccinations was slower, they are not required by universities. But students are being strongly encouraged to get vaccinated, for example at pop-up sites on some campuses.

Course administrators say the pandemic is influencing where students choose to study. Massimo Garbuio, director of the master of management (Cems) at University of Sydney Business School, reports a fall in interest from overseas students because of travel restrictions.

Garbuio warns of a big financial hit from the drop in international participants, which Australia’s schools rely on income from fees. “Some universities have been hit quite severely as overseas students decided not to come,” he says. “Education is one of the biggest exports of the Australian economy. If overseas students don’t see Australia as an opportunity in future, that will have a big impact on the university sector and the economy.”

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A rise in domestic applications is a widespread theme. At Germany’s Mannheim Business School, 75 per cent of the 2020 intake was German, up from 70 per cent in 2019. Joachim Lutz, the school’s dean, also puts the rise down to Covid travel restrictions. “There is a kind of localisation trend right now,” he says. “International students are trying to stay in their home country and some are delaying their applications.” Mannheim’s MiM will start in a “blended” format this year after being exclusively online in 2020.

Despite schools having at least partially restored the student experience, uncertainty over the course of the pandemic means administrators are drawing up contingency plans to revert to online learning.

London Business School hopes to welcome the full MiM class on campus this year, but programme director Oliver Ashby issues a caveat: “In the worst-case scenario, if travel is completely impossible or case numbers are higher, we can switch back to remote teaching. Students understand that we may have to adapt the programme in quite a major way if the situation requires it.”

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