Using crisis as an opportunity for transformation – lessons from the GFC for higher education

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008 was a game changer for the University of Sydney Business School in Australia. Rather than put the brakes on the school’s plans to create a new suite of offerings, the global recession forced us to accelerate them. The transformation wasn’t instantaneous or painless, but it left us in a different—and much better—position than before.

Now the world is confronted by another global crisis: COVID-19. While the current crisis is different in many ways, it represents a similar turning point for business schools. We thought the lessons we learned in 2008 might be useful to other schools, whether they plan to launch new programs, transform a suite of programs, or adopt new modes of educational delivery.

The GFC: a look back

Prior to 2008, our business school was known as the Faculty of Economics and Business, an arts and social sciences department that primarily offered content related to commerce, finance, and accounting. All programs were delivered on campus—we offered no content online. Work placement opportunities for our students were negligible.

Further complicating matters was that, until the late 2000s, a partnership agreement between the University of Sydney and another local university constrained what types of graduate programs our faculty could offer in business disciplines. When our school formed this partnership in the early 1990s, our recently launched MBA was discontinued. In its place, we delivered what ostensibly was a joint MBA with our partner. In reality, however, the program was branded as the partner institution’s offering.

We knew we needed to remove that constraint to be able to rebuild our brand and develop new offerings. That opportunity came in 2005. By this time, the partner-run MBA had lost traction in the market. Rather than subsidize mounting operating losses for the program, our university dissolved the partnership completely—it was the break we needed to rebuild our own brand. Even so, it took us several years to find our feet, reposition our faculty as a business school, and move forward with a new portfolio of graduate management degrees.

Between 2010 and 2013, international enrolments in our existing pre-experience programs decreased significantly due to the recession. This decline resulted in staff redundancies and a slump in staff morale; at the instigation of the university’s incoming vice chancellor, most of our social science disciplines were relocated to another faculty. If we were to emerge from the economic downturn in a stronger state, we knew we would have to increase the pace and intensity of change.

The first step in our post-GFC transformation was to position our institution as an international business school. To accomplish this, we made a successful bid to join the Global Alliance of Management Education (CEMS) in 2009—the University of Sydney became the alliance’s first non-European member. As part of the alliance, we established the CEMS Master in International Management (MIM), a dual-degree program that allows our students to earn a degree from us and a degree from another school in the 34-member alliance.

Students pursuing MIM degrees undertake activities such as skills seminars, team-based business projects, and international internships, all in conjunction with the alliance’s more than 70 corporate partners. Inspired by the CEMS blueprint, we have deeply infused experiential learning such as business projects and global study throughout our programs. We wanted to ensure that our graduates possessed the confidence and capability of putting what they learned into practice.

In addition, we established a suite of graduate management programs that includes part-time, full-time, and executive MBAs, all hallmarks of an international business school. In 2011, we officially changed our name to the University of Sydney Business School.

New crisis, new opportunities

Perhaps one of the most important lessons we have taken from both the GFC and COVID-19 is that nothing is permanent—the need for change and innovation is ever-present. As business educators, we must adapt to every change sensibly, strategically, and decisively.

With that level of adaptation in mind, many of our CEMS partner schools continue to introduce new programs, transform their offerings, and adopt new forms of delivery. For example, the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business in Ithaca, New York, launched its own CEMS MIM degree this summer. The University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business joined CEMS aiming to connect future South African leaders to global conversation in a post-COVID-19 world.

As business educators, we must adapt to every change sensibly, strategically, and decisively.

And, of course, the current crisis is an opportunity for all schools to accelerate pre-existing plans around online learning. Five months into this crisis, for example, we moved all of our business school’s classroom-based undergraduate and postgraduate units online. Prior to the pandemic, we had planned to achieve this in five years—I would not have thought such an accelerated timeline remotely possible just a year ago!

But even after we emerge from lockdown, it is very unlikely that we will ever snap back completely to old forms of classroom learning. Indeed, feedback from our students indicates that they see real value in a sensible blend of online, on-campus, and on-the-job learning. So, our first challenge is to design programs that encompass all three of these learning modes to better serve the business and management students of the 2020s. The second pressing challenge is to leverage online learning with our corporate partners in ways that complement what we already have in place.

To address either challenge, schools must adopt the right mindset in relation to the current crisis—a mindset that views these challenges as opportunities. We cannot afford to squander them.

Twelve lessons learned

For schools to take full advantage of the possibilities to which COVID-19 has given rise, we believe it’s critical that they take to heart the following lessons we have learned in our own journey:

1. Don’t do anything half-heartedly—or foolhardily

Academic administrators and educators should premeditate what they want to do and why they think they should do it. Then, don’t try to do everything at once. Instead, focus on the innovations that are the most strategically important for the school’s success. Pursue those innovations aggressively and with courage.

At the University of Sydney, for example, we reinvented our brand by placing CEMS at the heart of our program. We focused on a strategy and then went all in—we did not approach the change half-heartedly or latch on to past traditions.

2. Re-examine the school’s brand identity

Remember that any substantial change will alter a school’s DNA. When a school adopts innovation and change, it must rethink its sense of identity as much as its curriculum or allocation of funding. Prior to the GFC, for example, we were averse to engaging directly with the corporate world because we did not view it as part of our school’s identity. While we had a much closer connection with for-profit companies post-GFC, we continued to view our school as a campus-based institution.

Now, with COVID-19, our long-cherished identity as a campus-based institution that embraces a “sage-on-the-stage” approach to teaching has been radically disrupted. In its place, we are forming an emerging and as yet unsettled identity as a school driven by online—or at least, blended—educational delivery.

3. Use location as an advantage

For example, the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business’ location on the East Coast of the U.S. makes it accessible and attractive for international students. The University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business has the whole of southern and central Africa as its natural recruiting ground; it, too, can use its diverse heritage and stunning location to its advantage.

Our own university benefits from Sydney’s reputation for friendliness, natural features, great weather, and accessible transportation. We also are nearby the Southeast Asian economic powerhouse, even as we remain mindful of our Western intellectual heritage. This “close but different” mindset allows us to offer students a diverse learning experience.

4. Achieve university buy-in

Although this might not be the case for every business school, our school operates in a comprehensive university ecosystem; as part of this system, we must generate revenue for the entire university. It was crucial for us to garner support from university leadership and key central service units, including communications and finance, as we made substantial changes to our program.

5. Get the human aspect right

Hire people who share the school’s vision, have a passion for its brand, and are willing to commit for the long haul. It’s important to appoint program leaders and academic and professional staff who are passionate about new initiatives and who are committed to growing them long-term.

In this regard, we have changed our thinking about what constitutes an effective program team. In our previous incarnation, program leadership devolved to an individual academic who was typically conscripted to the role. The idea of having academics and professional staff work together as equals to co-lead programs was considered almost heretical. But now, under the CEMS model, program managers and academic directors work together in a spirit of shared purpose and enterprise. One of the key changes we have introduced over the last five years is the adoption of a similar team-based approach to program governance.

6. Make corporate relations a key focus

Providing business students with direct, immersive experiences in established and emerging firms is crucial to both their “work-readiness” (a term I dislike) and their “future-readiness” (which I believe is far more important). It is thus essential for business schools to build exclusive relationships with a pool of corporate partners that are willing to invest time in the curriculum.

7. Involve the communications team from the start

A school’s media and marketing teams not only are able to help a school sell its brand to the world, but also are familiar with the interwoven ecosystem of traditional media and social media channels. They understand that brand building involves not just broadcasting messages on these channels, but listening and responding to what the community has to say. Listening is critical to understanding students’ experiences.

8. Develop strong relationships with other schools

One benefit of the current crisis is that it will likely defuse the resistance many schools have to co-designing and co-delivering virtual learning content. Cross-border collaboration is something we should be excited about, as it is imperative to creating world-class programs.

9. Make all programs integral to the brand

Our CEMS program is not siloed from our other degree offerings. It matches what we do elsewhere in the school, with many of the advanced elective units for MIM drawn from our other master’s programs. This program structure maximizes the potential of all programs, while eliminating competition for resources among faculty members. As a result, we have seen a cultural shift in our faculty toward shared enterprise; they now view our programs as an integrated whole.

The current crisis will likely defuse the resistance many schools have to co-delivering virtual learning content.

10. Nurture strong alumni relationships

Alumni are a school’s most powerful brand champions, donors, and mentors. It’s essential to take steps to support alumni networks, as well as have staff in place to grow alumni engagement.

11. Understand what each segment of the student population wants

Use that information to carefully craft a brand message. At the University of Sydney, we seek to attract older millennials and members of the Gen Z generation to our large pre-experience programs. Both groups are more than digital natives—they can’t survive without digital technologies. If we want to reach and inspire these young learners, we must use online learning platforms effectively. Face-to-face classroom instruction will still have a place in higher education. But educators who expect a complete reversion to old ways of teaching and learning in the post-pandemic world are making a tragic mistake.

12. Be agile, adaptable, and innovative

The crisis we now face is aptly described by VUCA, the popular business acronym that stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. In today’s world, the “V” might also stand for viral, and even virtual! In such an environment, adopting a “set it and forget it” strategy guarantees only one thing: failure. As we continue to manage the impact of the current global crisis, we must unlearn old ways. It’s time for us to innovate across national and digital boundaries; we must move from being campus-based educators to educators who can adapt to a blended-learning space.

As we anticipate living and learning in a post-pandemic world, it’s time for us to pivot once again. We must embrace the idea of ongoing innovation, and we must successfully integrate online, on-campus, work-integrated, and globally mobile learning modes. If we are to teach our students to manage and lead in a post-COVID-19 world, we will need to demonstrate that we, too, can emerge from this crisis transformed for the better.


This article was originally published by BizEd. Read the original.

Image: chuttersnap

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