Stellenbosch University. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Stellenbosch University. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

FM: How have executive education demand and revenue recovered from this time last year?

VdH: By July of last year, many clients had already started to re-engage and were attempting to make up the backlog of development. However, those that were very badly hit by Covid stayed away and were replaced by others that had benefited from remote working and online commerce. We are ahead of where we thought we would be and optimistic that we have largely replaced our lost clients.

It is inevitable that company closures and job losses will have an impact across higher education.  We worked closely with our clients to support them in the short term, mainly through penalty-free cancellations, delays and refunds. Many companies were hit hard and we did not want to add to their pain.

FM: What are the biggest changes to executive education caused by Covid?

VdH:  The biggest game-changer is undoubtedly the merger of education technology companies 2U and EdX. They will have 50-million students and 3,500 courses with 230 partnering universities. The opportunities created by their scale and the prospect of switching to different business models should put a rocket under anyone who feels complacent.

What else? We have much stronger international competition and potentially better opportunities, plus downward pressure on prices. We have had to dramatically innovate the way we work to offer better value for money. We think these changes are here to stay. 

With regard to our portfolio, there will inevitably be a shift towards interventions that support remote workers and teams, intellectually and emotionally. There will also be new operating models. Growth industries that have emerged will require management and leadership.

FM: Are clients comfortable with the switch to online learning? 

VdH: Most have realised they no longer have travel and accommodation costs and seem to be making the most of the online format. In some ways they get better bang for their buck because the travel, accommodation and venues were a big chunk of the cost. There are still interventions that are better conducted face-to-face. Many clients … recognise that the returns from benefits like networking and team-building, with the projects and strategies that result, overshadow the other costs. 

FM: Did your faculty find it easy to switch to online teaching? 

VdH: Zoom and MS Teams are quite intuitive and most faculty had experience of similar formats. Nevertheless, we hosted expert sessions to make sure everyone was up to speed. Also, everyone took a while to work out a helpful set of rules around online etiquette. That is still a work in progress. 

FM: FM research showed a sharp drop in demand for live, synchronous executive education programmes (including online) in 2020 and an even sharper rise in demand for recorded, asynchronous programmes. Is this a temporary phenomenon?

VdH: That might have been true for 2020, but our numbers this year for show growth in blended, synchronous courses and less growth in asynchronous, online courses. Regardless, there are a few Covid-induced changes that will surely stick, like blended learning. We also think we are reaching many more delegates in Africa and beyond. These changes are very welcome because more executives have access to the learning. If demand is measured by the number of delegates, then ours has not changed much. If you measure it by revenue, then, yes, there has been a drop, but that is expected because we have reduced costs and prices to deliver blended online courses. 

FM: Virtual and augmented reality are becoming tools in international business education. Do you use them?

VdH: We monitor these trends and will experiment early if we can see client benefits. Stellenbosch University has a strong team in this space and we stay close so that we can join in the fun of the latest technology. 

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