It’s strange how things sometimes turn out for the best, says Johannesburg Business School (JBS) director Lyal White. When the idea of a fully fledged University of Johannesburg (UJ) business school was first floated a few years ago, planners dreamed of a R500m, state-of-the-art campus in Baragwanath, Soweto.

But economic reality kept intervening, and when the school finally opened for business in 2017, it was in an ageing skyscraper overlooking the university. Even then, founding director White hoped something more fitting would eventually be found.

Now, thanks to Covid-19, there could be premises that are just what the doctor ordered. Even before the virus hit, the trend towards remote working was making people accustomed to virtual interaction. That and the wholesale shift to online business school education during the pandemic have rendered many traditional classrooms and lecture halls temporarily redundant. Though there is sure to be some return eventually to face-to-face teaching, it’s unlikely to be at the same level as before.

Lyal White. Picture: Supplied
Lyal White. Picture: Supplied

So when JBS does eventually plan new premises, it will do so with different ideas – ones more relevant to the changing environment in which schools will operate in future.

White wonders aloud: “Do schools really need huge, high-cost facilities? It may be what they used to aspire to, but is this concept still relevant?” Being in the school’s current location in the Milpark skyscraper gives JBS time to think.

It’s not all it has to think about. White says Covid-19 has forced business schools – and higher education generally – to confront issues they have avoided in the past.

Schools have talked at length about needing to change the way they educate. Now they have no choice but to make the change. Online and virtual teaching is only part of it. “We all have to look more closely at what our clients need. We have to be far more in tune with where they have been, where they are now, and where they are going,” says White.

This is doubly challenging, given that some clients can’t say where they are headed. Several have asked what the post-Covid world will look like and how they will fit into it. No wonder White says trying to plan and redesign in the current uncertainty is like “building an airplane while it’s flying”.

Until this year, JBS has concentrated primarily on executive education, with the emphasis on small-and medium-sized businesses. In 2020 the school has launched an MBA programme, also aimed primarily at those markets.

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