Picture: 123RF/Nirat Makjantuk
Picture: 123RF/Nirat Makjantuk

There’s nothing like being thrown in at the deep end. Under normal circumstances it’s hard enough to launch your first MBA into a tight, competitive market. But what do you do when, before your first batch of students have even had time to open their textbooks, a deadly pandemic arrives to throw all your carefully sculpted plans into chaos?

You keep calm and carry on.

Johannesburg Business School (JBS) director Lyal White admits: “We had to learn very quickly.” But, then, he says that’s what the school has been doing since it opened its doors in 2017. “We’re not afraid to make a few mistakes, as long as we learn from them.”

White had hoped to attract 50 students to the school’s first MBA programme. In the event there were 80. Of these, 98% are black – White says the school, part of the University of Johannesburg, aimed the programme squarely at black business people running small and medium enterprises. “We’re not set up for corporates,” he says.

The school’s MBA was designed as a two-year part-time programme with regular block-release sessions at the school. White says it took two weeks to convert the course to a wholly online programme. He hopes classroom sessions can resume in 2021.

He says experiences of the past few months have convinced him that it is time for a reassessment of the MBA’s role in education. In many ways, it is still rooted in its history. “The MBA prepares us for the current world and is informed by its past. But are we preparing people for the future?”

He says programmes should be “more exploratory than instructive”. By changing the global social and business landscape, he says Covid-19 has forced everyone, including education authorities, to question everything they thought they knew.

“Covid has compressed mega-trends into a small point in time and forced us to adapt,” he says. “We need to take what we have learned and apply it to what we need. We have to keep pace with what is happening around us. We must stay relevant.”

The school may have adapted to what Covid has thrown at it but not all students have been so lucky. The pandemic has cut a swathe of destruction through the small and medium business sectors that many of them occupy. Incomes have been affected and the blurring of lines between office, home and study has created new pressures.

White admits that while most students have come through successfully, others are “exhausted and demoralised”. He says: “Together, we will all weather the storm. But it’s proving harder for some of us.”​

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