Cobus Oosthuizen: Dean at Milpark Business School. Picture: Russell Roberts
Cobus Oosthuizen: Dean at Milpark Business School. Picture: Russell Roberts

Never underestimate people’s ability to adapt, says Cobus Oosthuizen, dean of Milpark Business School. When Covid-19 struck this year and the school joined others in moving all its MBA activities online, many students hated the idea.

For those enrolled in the school’s existing online programme, it was business as usual. But not for those signed up for the part-time programme. They wanted the personal experience of classroom teaching; face-to-face sessions with lecturers and interaction with fellow students. The MBA, after all, is not just about theory and knowledge but also about teamwork and relationship-building. Some part-time students considered such things impossible through a computer screen.

Were they right? Six months on, Oosthuizen says: “A lot of students have said they didn’t know online was so engaging. They thought it would be impersonal and dull. They thought they would miss classroom interaction. The reality has been very different to what they expected. Having experienced it, they say it fits in with their lives.”

He adds: “Students have overcome the feeling of ‘this can’t work’.” As a result, some of the face-to-face teaching in Milpark’s two-year part-time MBA might remain online when Covid-19 finally departs.”

Some programme elements adapt more favourably to online than others. When it comes to class syndicates and case studies, it obviously works better if students can sit around the same table and work as a team. Oosthuizen says that as long as individual students undertake the necessary preparation before online group meetings, which are then recorded for reference, teamwork is possible. “It’s not quite the same, but it can work,” he says.

Overall, Oosthuizen says Milpark students have maintained previous standards. “We haven’t seen any kneejerk reaction of people performing worse because they don’t like what’s happening.”

Such a kneejerk response would be counter-productive. Milpark is the only independent SA business school whose MBA is internationally accredited by the UK-based Association of MBAs (Amba). Other approved SA schools are all linked to universities.

Oosthuizen says the Amba link – fewer than 300 schools around the world are accredited – not only offers prestige but also forces the school to monitor the relevance of its MBA continuously. “There is a lot of thinking about curriculum and whether it meets the needs of the marketplace,” Oosthuizen says. “Are we addressing artificial intelligence and other developing technologies appropriately?”

Like other schools, Milpark is uncertain about what impact Covid-19 will have on MBA enrolments for 2021. Market difficulties are forcing many employers to reduce or even withhold MBA bursaries.

Oosthuizen says: “Our applications so far are comparable to last year, but some of the people say they can’t commit yet because their companies are putting sponsorships on ice.” There are also people who planned to pay for themselves but because they have lost income this year – some lost their jobs – they are still looking for funding. “At this stage, it’s hard to say what our eventual enrolment numbers will be.”

Last year, 80 people applied to start an MBA in 2020 and 64 enrolled. Including those who began in previous years, Milpark now has 272 students at different stages of their MBA programmes.​

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