Is the B-School Campus Dead?

Is the B-School Campus Dead?

B-Schools could face an existential crisis as economy slows and education moves online

Illustration by Raj Verma Illustration by Raj Verma

A group of second-year MBA students from XLRI-Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur, persuaded Prof L. Gurunathan, Associate Professor in Human Resource Management, to postpone his course on compensation to the next semester. They did not want to attend the course from their star professor online. But since B-Schools are not opening anytime soon, the elective will now be offered online much to the students' dismay. "We can't postpone it anymore," says Gurunathan.

B-Schools across India have been shut due to the pandemic since March. What is certain is that whenever they open, the campus as we knew it will no longer be the same. Says Ranjan Banerjee, Dean, SP Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR): "The fundamentals of the B-School will continue to be relevant but certain things will get executed differently."

The number of active B-Schools in India has been falling over the years - it has fallen 12 per cent from 3,450 in 2015/16 to 3,037 in 2019/20. The pandemic-led disruption, however, has had a brutal impact. During FY21, AICTE accepted 197 applications for closure of B-Schools against 59 in FY20. Placements, too, have been impacted. Across the 223 B-Schools common to the BT-MDRA listing in 2019 and 2020, placements fell from 86 per cent in 2019 to 81 per cent in 2020. Tuition fees in 2020 are 2.3 per cent lower compared to 2019 for the 223 schools.

That apart, fewer students are inclined towards MBA this year. Registrations for the Common Admission Test (CAT) have fallen 5.7 per cent from last year to 2.30 lakh in 2020, the lowest since 2015. They touched a record 2.44 lakh in 2019. There are other problems too. With B-schools taking the online-only route to finish their curriculum, students might not be willing to pay a bomb in course fees. They would rather opt for lesser-priced online programmes. However, students and faculty are not yet fully convinced about the value proposition of online courses. The argument is while online courses provide skills they don't offer perspective. "Harvard courses have been offered on Coursera for years now. So, is a Harvard grad equivalent to the one with an online degree?" asks Abbasali Gabula, Associate Director, External Relations, SPJIMR.

Mirroring The Outside World

Over the past few years there has been a mushrooming of B-Schools in India. Those that could not keep pace with quality are exiting. Those remaining are thinking like businesses to be agile, innovative and future-ready. "It is a volatile world and even before Covid we had started to think of what students need to do to live in an increasingly digital world," says Errol D'Souza, Director, IIM-A.

He shares the example of IIM-A's theatrical society IIMACTS that prepares five-six plays normally, but learnt creating online videos this year. "From writing, directing and acting in theatre plays on campus, they scripted and edited an online video from their homes," he says. Inspired by AIB's Honest series, the result was a 13-minute 'Honest Online Classes' video, a comical take on Zoom classrooms.

The team is now partnering with IIM-B and IIM-C's theatrical society to plan community events, says Anant Bordia, a second-year PGP student and IIMACTS's club coordinator. Such collaboration between theatrical societies of IIMs has never happened before, he adds. Bordia's team is now exploring how to pull off a Zoom play online.

D'Souza is proud. "Such initiatives induce real learning," he says. Students are exploring the potential of online, learning new skills, collaborating with others, and understanding their own limitations. "There might be a few glitches here and there, but what the heck," he adds.

This learning experience, he says, is important, as organisations today want to hire candidates with not just technical, but also soft skills, including communication and leadership. From eight clubs and societies 10 years ago at IIM-A, they have increased to 46.

Missing Networking Opportunities

While online opens up new possibilities, there is a lot that goes missing, especially peer-to-peer conversation, feels Ashish Sancheti, a second-year student at SPJIMR. "On campus, it was common to have impromptu late-night chats, hear about each other's work experience. These talkfests don't happen online. Conversations on phone are to the point and only if there is a reason," says Sancheti.

Peer-to-peer learning is important in B-Schools because classes are diverse with students from engineering, fashion, and even the Army, unlike other courses such as Masters in psychology where the background of students is uniform, says Ramabhadran Thirumalai, Senior Associate Dean, Academic programme at ISB.

Also, relations formed virtually aren't as thick. Aman Kumar Singh, a second-year MBA student at IIM-A, says he is not really friends with co-interns at his virtual internship at Accenture Strategy. However, he is still in touch with the interns he met during the on-premise internship of his engineering school in 2018 at real estate startup NoBroker.

An integral part of attending B-School is the network it offers. The campus becomes a space where relationships and networks get formed. "At the Joka campus students belong to a community and proudly address themselves as 'Jokars'. The bond between batches is visible in our strong alumni network," says Anju Seth, Director, IIM Calcutta.

Changing Curriculum

While B-Schools are encouraging students to stay engaged, they are also experimenting with their very core - curriculum and pedagogy. Academics feel while the requirement for traditional domains such as finance and marketing doesn't change, there is a need to make it contextual with happenings of the outside world. Pankaj Chandra, Vice Chancellor of Ahmedabad University, says: "Several domains are coinciding and we need to bring that broad perspective to students in the classroom."

There will be the need for new courses on business continuity, digital transformation, building resilience, managing teams remotely, but they will have to be taught in a trans-disciplinary format, which brings multiple disciplines together such as political science, science, technology and environment into management courses. It is a common practice in global universities where students from engineering attend psychology lessons, but for India it is still early days. Standalone B-Schools will have to partner with other institutes (like liberal arts and social sciences schools) with complementary skills to craft such programmes. "This is where the real challenge for B-Schools will be," adds Chandra. Ahmedabad University recently revamped its MBA programme, which allows students to take courses from other faculties. Chandra says their ethics course is being taught by a philosophy professor from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

At IIM-A, too, while students in the first year take fundamental courses, in the second year they choose specialised courses called electives. Ten years ago, IIM-A had 75 electives in the second year, which has now gone up to almost 160. "The number of students hasn't changed, so this jump tells you that there is so much more diversity in curriculum," says D'Souza. Students are also allowed to demand courses they are interested in. Courses on bionics, theatre and media were introduced upon students' requests.

New Reality

Covid has made B-Schools aware of the potential of the online model. "Very soon online might account for 30-35 per cent in flagship MBAs," says Banerjee of SPJIMR.

And it is not just what B-Schools offer to students that will change. The way they are offered will also see a change. "It will be a different ballgame moving on," says Debashis Chatterjee, Director, Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode (IIM-K). There will be a realisation that not every knowledge-sharing activity requires physical presence, and can be delivered through digital platforms. "With digital, the big change will be that learning is not bound by place (that is the campus or the classroom), but space where there is digital transmission of knowledge," adds Chatterjee.

He shares the examples of engineering company ABB that has simulated its factory experience into virtual reality. Due to Covid, as students couldn't do any field visit, they got the factory experience inside the classroom. Going forward, it could be an alternative option for students, he adds.

This will also result in a design change in the look and feel of classrooms, says Chatterjee. There will be more studio-like classrooms, with air mikes, specialised lights, and stage that will have the ability to transmit the entire classroom experience to multiple geographies. So, there is likely to be lesser sitting space. There will also be cafeteria-like classrooms to allow socialising, discussions for informal learning. There will be auditorium-like classrooms for lectures. IIM-K has designed 10 studio-classrooms and three classrooms for digital classes for outside faculty. Even flagship programmes will be blended where online will be used to enhance learning. Flipped learning will be an instructional strategy where students will be expected to attend lectures at home and come to classroom with some sort of understanding of the topic to engage in discussions.

There will also be greater focus on hybrid models of delivery where students can be in class or at homes/hostels. Earlier to get access to global faculty, they would visit the campus for a few weeks and classes would be bunched. "Now, faculty can be sourced from anywhere in the world. There are possibilities to get a CEO to comment once students are done with the case study of the company," says SPJIMR's Banerjee.

While online delivery will increase, it can't replicate the classroom, especially where technology is right now. Ajay Jain, Professor of Leadership and Organisation Design at Management Development Institute (MDI), Gurugram, says online technology is still not developed to give faculty an eagle-eye-view of the entire class (you can't see the entire class on a single screen while using Zoom or Microsoft Teams).

Gurunathan of XLRI says technology also doesn't work for back-and-forth communication with 80-100 students, integral to any B-School classroom.

Several students BT spoke were itching to go back to campus. One feedback was extensive screen time is exhausting. Aman Singh of IIM-A says: "I can say for my entire class that none of us is enjoying online classes." Ashish Sancheti of SPJIMR says: "I hope to go back to spend the last few months of my college and enjoy that campus vibe."

On the positive side, the average salary for students graduating from the 223 B-Schools has risen 7.6 per cent in 2020, while return on investment has gone up from 1.13 to 1.24 in 2020. To stay relevant, B-Schools need to step up their game and adapt to the changing environment. Those that do will thrive, the others will simply be left behind.