Business schools have lost their “viral virginity” and will never go back to working the way they did before Covid-19, says Jon Foster-Pedley, dean of Henley Africa Business School. Forced to adopt educational models they previously considered too expensive or cumbersome, many schools have now embraced the changes.
Since becoming dean in 2011, Foster-Pedley has transformed Henley Africa. The school is not only considered among the most innovative and forward-thinking in SA, but it is also a major force within the UK-based Henley Business School network, which has campuses around the world.
But even he admits to surprise at the way the school has embraced Covid-enforced changes. “We thought complete migration to online and virtual teaching would be very expensive but, forced to innovate, we discovered we could do it cost-effectively. Start-up costs were challenging but we found a way that did not break the bank.”
Henley completed the transition to online two weeks before lockdown in March. “We have found a new world,” says Foster-Pedley. “We are even starting to play with augmented and virtual reality.”
He adds: “We will never go back.” Well, not completely. Eventually, when the virus subsides, Henley, like other schools, will welcome back some face-to-face classroom teaching. When that will be, is anyone’s guess.
“We’ve all had to learn to work at a distance,” he says. “We don’t know if this virus will come back and if vaccines will work. Things have changed fundamentally but we will get used to it. Our classes and teaching methods will be very different in the future. It’s very exciting.”
Henley has avoided revenue losses from the cancellation or deferment of executive education programmes. “We’ve lost some but gained more,” says Foster-Pedley. “We’re actually ahead of budget.” He adds that the school has “maintained revenue, employment and salaries and actually increased the number of scholarships we offer to students”.
In fact, he says this is the time for companies to increase executive education: “After the 2008-2009 global crash, the companies that thrived were those that doubled down on training and innovation.”
Business schools are in a unique position to lead not only the post-Covid education and training fightback but also the overdue transformation of emerging markets, he says. Through their interaction with business, most have a practical sense of what is required but also possess the innovation and adaptability lacking in many universities.
Nearly half the SA workforce lacks appropriate skills for the current economy, “never mind the emerging one”. Foster-Pedley says: “The country needs employable people – people who are liberated. We are experiencing a blitzkrieg but fighting it with trench warfare.”
Traditional universities are so monolithic and wrapped up in “the system” that many are unable to provide the revolutionary thinking required for change. “Academia concentrates on theory but the actual system has nothing to do with theory. Universities used to be instruments of change but not any longer. We have a world to build and universities are not building it.”