Just over a year ago the Covid-19 pandemic turned the world upside down — and business schools did not escape this disruption.
Courses that relied on physical teaching were suspended, while the economic downturn and uncertainty that followed it caused some executives to put their studies on pause, as their future suddenly seemed less certain.
Market difficulties are forcing many employers to reduce sponsorships for business courses, or putting them on ice.
Many schools had at least some component of online learning before the pandemic struck, but when lockdown happened, everything had to go virtual, including the very important networking component. Remote, online networking just didn’t seem to offer the same opportunities and spontaneity as real-life events.
One of the upsides, however, has been that the crisis brought about by the pandemic has also given those with business training a chance to apply what they’ve learnt.
Last year in May as travel restrictions associated with Covid-19 lockdowns made themselves felt, an MBA student from the Milpark Business School, Zulekha Hassim, helped to repatriate 83 South Africans who were stranded in Pakistan.
It started when family members approached her to help bring back her husband’s cousin, who attended a religious gathering but then got stuck when borders closed. They established there were 82 other South Africans who were stuck with him in Pakistan.
“My role in the project was to engage with relevant stakeholders, both in the public and private sectors,” Hassim wrote in a letter published on the institution’s website. These included the Airports Company of South Africa, the Southern African Development Community, foreign missions and airlines. Apart from the repatriated South Africans, 81 Pakistani nationals were returned home in the process.
“Milpark Business School has definitely helped me apply collective, innovative and value-based leadership to help bring a smile to families whose loved ones were separated from them,” she says.
Making the best of a new normal
The disruption caused by the pandemic should be used to improve business courses, some economists argue.
Abdullahi Alim, specialist in Africa and the Middle East, Global Shapers Community at the World Economic Forum, says in an article published on the forum’s site in June 2020 that business schools are among those sectors that should reimagine a more equitable post-Covid-19 world order, since these “train the very talent required to steward a more inclusive economy”.
Alim argues that a simple return to normal would ignore the “growing economic anxiety and social unrest that’s been mounting since the 2008 financial crisis”.
A sudden return to the old normal could spark more protests against neoliberalism and halt near-term economic recovery.
Business schools reacted to the financial crisis in 2008 by adding courses on ethics, social impact, and sustainability. This was in response to growing speculation that business schools exposed financial executives involved in the crisis to the very ideas that led to the crisis, Alim argues, but he says that more can be done.
There have been a number of calls for a complete overhaul of the economy to address deepening inequalities, and some have argued for the introduction of a wealth tax or basic income grants.
What are the opportunities?
Charles Adjasi, Professor of Development finance and Economics at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, warns that the economic challenges in South Africa were already building up in the decade leading up to 2020.
He attributes this to a “sluggish manufacturing sector, increasing public debt and fiscal slippages, and increasing unemployment”.
South Africa’s hard lockdown in April and May caused manufacturing to contract by 48.7%, the largest slump ever, and the proportion of people who had no income almost trebled from 5.2% pre-lockdown to 15.4% immediately post-lockdown.
Several factors can help get South Africa back on its feet, including government leadership and commitment, global and regional growth, the growth of the economy and the swift rollout of a vaccine, he says, adding that it will be “a tough path of recovery”.
USB director Mark Smith said at the school’s ceremonial opening earlier this year that business schools need to shape “responsible leaders who can make ethical decisions, and responsible researchers who can help to orientate research towards the big societal challenges so that we can improve society in incremental ways”.
Natasha Winkler-Titus, senior lecturer in organisational behaviour at USB, says a new kind of leader will emerge after Covid-19: “Leaders who pay attention to science. Leaders leading with compassion and courage, who are not afraid to consult experts and science, and who act responsibly and take accountability.”
She also says that virtual collaboration should be improved, which doesn’t only imply working from home, but redesigning the workplace and how employees and teams engage for the greater good.
“Let’s use this crisis to propel us toward greater courage, compassion and significance to re-imagine work, workers and the idea of organising around purpose,” she says.
Business schools have become even more vital during the pandemic, dean and director of Henley Business School Africa, Jon Foster-Pedley believes.
In an article on the school’s website he says there is a call to “build back better”, but skilled people are needed for this.
“We have a skills shortage, yet our great universities all too often provide graduates unable to survive and to flourish in a world of volatility, uncertainty, chaos and ambiguity.”
Foster-Pedley, who spent the past two years as one of the vice-chairpersons of the South African Business Schools Association, says this was where business schools are vital. “Business will be the engine that drives growth, that creates the companies which employ the people.”
Those graduates that do succeed should inspire and benefit everyone around them. “The true meaning of business isn’t profit, it’s about creating prosperity by unlocking value — whether you are a CEO of a multinational or the local plumber or electrician. It’s only business schools that teach that,” he says. “Business schools are entrepreneurial. We are agile, responsive and resilient.”
He says business schools present more than just MBA programmes. “We develop new lines of academic enquiry at a master’s level rooted in real-life, real-time pragmatism, as well as producing shorter, highly focussed courses that are outcomes-based.”
He adds: “We are not just open for business; we want to collaborate and work with everyone and anyone who needs us. Call it ubuntu: ‘we are because of each other’.”