Cobus Oosthuizen, dean of Milpark Business School. Picture: Supplied
Cobus Oosthuizen, dean of Milpark Business School. Picture: Supplied

Academics and support staff at Milpark Business School “are like Everest Sherpas”, says dean Cobus Oosthuizen. “When students feel strain, we help carry their load.”

There’s been plenty of strain in the past year and a half, as Covid has forced schools and students alike to change the way they approach MBA degrees.

Some students have found the transition tough. For those whose programmes should include classroom contact sessions, there’s been almost none of the personal interaction and relationship-building they expected. In some cases, changed circumstances at their place of work have added another layer of complication.

However, Oosthuizen says Milpark has helped students rise above these challenges. Those that unexpectedly found all their studies to be online “have come to accept the situation”. More than that, “they say they didn’t think online learning would be as engaging as it is”. Even so, they look forward to the day that classrooms are open once again.

The other loss in 2020 and 2021 has been travel. Though the international study module still exists, it is now a virtual experience. Despite a “jam-packed” event, Oosthuizen admits it’s not the same as the real thing. “These trips aren’t just about business content but also the cultural side. It’s one thing to have a session with a CEO in Chile or Brazil about the monetary system, quite another to see the place and meet the people.”

Oosthuizen says the pandemic has encouraged schools to think afresh about the future and whether their MBA programmes are still relevant. He welcomes the greater emphasis on issues like ethics, sustainability and social responsibility.

“They are becoming embedded in the curriculum,” he says. “Hard-hearted management orthodoxy is no longer the dominant force.”  There’s more emphasis on developing what used to be called the “soft” skills, like communication, teamwork, decision-making, transparency and the ability to listen. “The old soft skills are the new hard skills,” says Oosthuizen.

One subject he would like to explore is philosophy. “I have yet to find a school that makes philosophy a core subject, but that’s how you develop critical thinking and the way you perceive the world.”

Milpark has so far avoided the worst effects of SA’s shortage of research supervisors for master’s and doctoral programmes. The SA Business Schools Association has been leading a recruitment drive for suitably qualified academics.

Oosthuizen says Milpark has built a “solid database” of supervisors, particularly to oversee doctoral students, but even this hasn’t completely protected it. For one research project, the field of study required a supervisor with specialist knowledge of technical mining. “We eventually found someone, but it took a while,” he says. “That’s the trouble in SA. Our supply of supervisors is like our tax base: rather limited.”

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