MBAs are still the postgraduate degree of choice for many

Chris Uren studied a masters of business administration course online at Macquarie University and it completely changed his ­career trajectory. Now almost 32, he had been employed as a frontline team member in the international division of Qantas and, like so many thousands of airline employees, he was stood down when the Covid-19 pandemic started to bite in Australia.

In light of the pandemic’s massive disruption of the business world, Uren decided to take the opportunity to fast-track his Global MBA. He completed it in two years, shifting into another sector of the transport industry as a ­result.

“I ended up working in bus and rail industries, going from being a frontline team member to being a leader of these large operational teams, 70 people, and accountable for entire end-to-end employee experience,” he says.

Like Uren, Australians from all industry sectors have used the enforced break of the pandemic to upgrade their skills with an MBA and prepare themselves for an abruptly changing business environment both in Australia and around the world.

Many of those who decided to pursue an MBA felt it would be an opportunity to develop new networks and expand their business knowledge and understanding; to boost their skills and enhance their career prospects, move to an entirely different industry or start their own businesses.

The demand for an MBA degree was already on the upswing pre-Covid, and there was a total of nearly 34,000 MBA and business administration student enrolments in 2019 across Australia, according to the federal government, with about 13,000 domestic and 21,000 international students. The 2020 numbers are not yet available, but many institutions have noted booming interest in MBA study since the beginning of 2020.

Uren was delighted with the online MBA course he chose. Because the Macquarie Global MBA is offered through the US-based Coursera learning platform, it has a high international profile with students enrolled from all around the world. It gave him the opportunity to work with students from other countries, and to plan and set strategy across time zones. One of the intensive consultation projects he collaborated on took three months to complete.

“We got the skills to be able to lead teams virtually in a global network,” he says, noting the students on the course were spread from Canada to Singapore. “We were working with people from different cultures and different backgrounds.”

He regarded this international peer-to-peer communication and collaboration as immensely useful.

“One of the biggest benefits for me was actually learning from the people I was working with on the projects, learning how they think, their approach to solving problems,” he says. “There’s a perception of online learning that it’s maybe not as ­effective as traditional face-to-face, but definitely through this course we broke down those barriers.”

Uren adds that he now has a network of MBA peers all over the world.

Often seen as one of the most popular postgraduate courses, the MBA offers some solutions in an uncertain world.

According to data from RMIT Online, the number of enrolments for its Master of Business Administration jumped by 37 per cent in the 2020-21 financial year. By September 2021, Uren’s Global MBA from Macquarie University had enrolled 228 students.

The Australian Graduate School of Management at UNSW also noticed a striking uptick in MBA enrolments when the Covid virus began to take hold in Australia, says director Nick Wailes. “For a lot of people it was the right time for them,” he says.

“They’d always planned to do it, so it was a good time to do it.”

About 2000 MBA students are currently enrolled at the university, about 100 in a selective full-time program notable for its student diversity; about 750 in a part-time executive MBA program and about 1200 in the online program. MBA courses, Wailes adds, are particularly useful for ­periods of transition, such as the world’s current state of economic flux. Many UNSW students correctly reasoned that the massive and shape-shifting economic disruption of the pandemic increased the importance of solid credentials and broad social skills.

“There’s an overwhelming sense that we will come out of this a very different business community,” Wailes says, adding that the MBA courses were seen as preparation for unknown challenges to come.

“Covid accelerated trends that were already happening.”

The MBA students at the university divide into three in terms of motivation, he says. Those in the first third want to speed up on their existing career track. Those in the second third feel an MBA will help them repackage themselves so they can transfer into another industry. Those in the last third, the sector growing most quickly, want to upgrade their skills and start their own business.

Technology, he says, continues to be vitally relevant for business administration students, particularly in a world increasingly dominated by the internet and com­puterisation, but an MBA course shouldn’t be geared only for the technical experts.

“Technology so important, but not just about technology,” he says. “You also have to understand how customers think, how to ­motivate employees: it’s us being human.

“For me, it’s about getting the balance right between understanding the technology and having the soft human skills to bring all that together.”

UNSW offers specialist MBAs, including one focused on law, one on finance and, naturally, one on technology. A course can offer an expert in a particular field the skills and knowledge to manage a team of experts in that field, Wailes says, or it can be T-shaped degree, with a plank of broader management skills across the top and the downstroke a deep understanding in a particular area.

At Griffith University, meanwhile, the MBA course choices are varied, but they are all based on “values” such as sustainability and responsibility, says MBA director Stephanie Schleimer.

A Griffith MBA course, she says, will provide students with confidence, skills, and a knowledge toolkit, all framed in a pedagogy based on values. “Our students want to have a genuine change,” she says. “They want to be not just better leaders, they want to lead into a better world.”

Griffith MBA students can choose a fully online course (which has been in operation for six years), a face-to-face course or a hybrid of the two. In total, the university has about 600 MBA students and increasing numbers of domestic students are enrolling in the online courses, happy they don’t have to relocate to study.

Contrary to perceived wisdom, Schleimer says, the online courses can provide more student intimacy and peer support as a result of their flexible nature. Students can check in when they get home from work and have valuable online discussions with their peers. They can study the online course part-time over two years or they can speed it up if their circumstances change.

“People want that flexibility,” Schleimer adds. “You don’t have to move to study. Working parents can take the course from home. It’s a new way to study that is comfortable and quite flexible.”