It was the best of times for masters degrees in business, and the worst of times for the business of executive education. After several years of stagnating demand, coronavirus pushed more graduating students to stay on for additional diploma courses last year and motivated many already in employment to return to university for further study.
But the pandemic triggered a meltdown in shorter, non-degree programmes for middle and senior managers around the world, as employers cut spending and staff shifted their priorities to adapt to the changes forced on them by illness, lockdowns and closures.
As a result, the annual global executive education market — estimated at $2bn in 2019 — fell by a third in the year to June 2020. Even many of the leading business schools experienced a drop in revenues of between a third and a half, and most were stretched as they sought to adapt their programmes at short notice with a switch from in-person to online learning.
FT Executive Education directories 2021
But schools demonstrated considerable innovation, moving teaching online, using digital technology to connect a broader variety of participants with more external speakers and partners, and offering new and topical programmes, including to alumni and wider audiences — sometimes very cheaply, or even for free.
Given the exceptional pressures on schools and their clients, and the disruption to normal practices that would have distorted the results, the FT decided temporarily to suspend its usual annual ranking. This year’s report instead seeks to describe and analyse important trends, experiences and best practices across the sector.
It also includes two important sources of data for the first time, to help both business schools and clients navigate the “new normal”. The first is a directory — not a ranking — which provides insights into the activities of the leading business schools. To be eligible for inclusion, each had to be internationally accredited and have a minimum annual revenue from executive education of at least $1m.
The list includes 91 global business schools offering open enrolment programmes; and 100 delivering bespoke courses customised for individual organisations.
The insights are revealing: a dozen schools show annual revenues in excess of $20m, in India, China and Mexico as well as Europe and the US. A large proportion report very high repeat business from participants and corporate clients, providing a useful measure of customer loyalty and satisfaction.
Other data gathered include the number of students and courses offered in 2020, the extent of partnerships, gender balance in classes, teaching hours and details of flagship advanced and general management programmes.
The second innovation this year is a survey of organisations’ chief learning officers, to gauge demand. This was conducted jointly by the FT and Unicon, the international consortium for university-based executive education, along with the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the European Foundation for Management Development, and the Society for Human Resource Management.
The message from clients is cautiously optimistic: more than a quarter said they intended to increase their budgets for executive education this year, with more than half anticipating stable levels of spending. More than half also said they would use business schools as partners for learning programmes.
While longstanding topics — headed by leadership and change management — remain of greatest interest, pandemic-related challenges such as resilience and wellbeing were seen as important. Insights into diversity and inclusion were also highly valued, notably by US organisations.
Only a quarter of respondents considered online learning was better than in-person, but nearly all accepted future programmes would largely be blended. The upside is greater flexibility for participants balancing work, family and education; and the potential to offer training to a far larger proportion of the workforce, to instil the necessary new skills and to motivate and retain them in uncertain times.
There were two sobering findings for business schools. A high proportion of employers are exploring the use of the growing number of alternative external providers, many of which are “digitally native” and have proved more flexible in meeting training needs.
Just as importantly, chief learning officers are showing greater desire to evaluate candidates and scrutinise programmes in more detail, to align them with business needs and understand the return on investment. That is a theme that also interests the FT, as we seek ways to assess the value of schools in the new era of executive education.
We welcome suggestions from providers, employers and participants alike at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Jack is the FT’s global learning editor