Making it personal

The impact of globalisation and consumerism on business education. Ellen Buchan and David Woods-Hale share key themes from an AMBA & BGA roundtable event

Higher education is becoming borderless, moving from a domestic industry to a global one, competing internationally. According to the European Commission, almost half of all member states consider attracting and retaining international students to be a policy priority.

For students, options around where to study are expanding at no extra cost, while from an institutional perspective, the range of potential customers is increasing. However, this means the level of resources allocated to marketing must also increase, as will the need to implement high-quality and efficient marketing strategy. 

In addition, institutions will have a wider range of nationalities, cultures, and behaviours on campus, and will have to adapt and personalise all processes and services in order to provide a unique student experience to those new global profiles. Currently, students on campuses are a mix of digital natives (the generations of young people born into the digital age), digital immigrants (those born during the 1960s and ‘70s who learned to use computers at some stage during their adult life) and analogue natives, born before 1960.

By contrast, in 2025, 100% of the students will be digital natives. Providing a quality experience for a digital native student will – and must – become a critical decision point in the potential student (customer) interaction with the institution at the marketing and recruitment stage.

Students will treat educational institutions as a regular business from a consumer perspective. This is supported by a 2020 consumer report by, which shows that 78% of students expect their experience to be personalised.

In a bid to explore these themes, address the challenges above and share insights into the solutions needed to address the fast-changing marketplace, AMBA & BGA, in association with, brought together a group of Business School leaders to discuss the impact that globalisation and the rise of consumerism is having on business education – and how this will reshape the fundamentals of the MBA in the future. 

Here are some highlights of that conversation. 

Julio Villalobos, Director, CXO Strategic Industry Advisor, Education EMEA Center of Excellence,

We need to treat our students not only as students, but also as customers, which is how they are being treated in many other industries. We must keep that concept in our mind and reflect it in our processes around the student’s 360º journey. Students became alumni – potential lifelong learners and customers of the future.

Timothy M Devinney, Chair and Professor of International Business, Alliance Manchester Business School

I think students have been trained by the administrative structures of universities and Business Schools to believe that they are customers. I have always argued against that. 

The problem is that when you start taking a consumer attitude (asking if they want ‘fries with their theories?’, as I jokingly put it) we end up in a world in which Business Schools are very transactional, and are measured according to the immediate satisfaction of the student, who may have no idea of the future value of what they are being taught. 

The interaction with international students, in particular, is mainly transactional. They pay their money, do a lot of things, and then go home and hope to be able to get a job. We have seen, in the case of Australia (where international students have questioned the value of their university experience) that this can be a short-term win but, in the long run, it corrupts the overall educational experience. The question I have always asked is: ‘Do you have a transactional model, or do you have a relational model?’ The best Schools are very good at avoiding the transactional model and trying to build a relational model, but you must invest a lot in order to do this, and few Schools know how to do this well.

I have started to argue for a rental model of degrees; it goes back to micro-credentialing. Rather than signing up for a one-year programme where students go through modules intensively in a year, they sign up for a plethora of things. I propose that institutions sign contracts with students that commit to providing them with a whole series of opportunities, for a set of fees, over a period of 10 years.  

The idea that you enter higher education at the age of 25, and know what you want, simply doesn’t work – nor is it realistic. Even if you know what you want to do (or think you do), the ground is going to shift under you. You want to minimise the risk associated with this. So instead of a one-year programme, you have a portfolio of provision from the institution. This becomes very relational and  ensures students don’t forget what they learn because they get ‘booster shots’ that keeps that knowledge from waning. 

You could partner with other institutions to become a portal for learning; some elements you would provide, others you would just facilitate. Different institutions could then specialise, rather than having to be be all things to all people. They could be much nimbler and more adaptive.

Vincenzo Baglieri, PhD, Associate Dean Masters Division, SDA Bocconi School of Management

The amazing success we had in the past couple of years on MBA programmes is mainly because of the move from a transactional approach to a relational approach. 

That was the consequence of redesigning programmes to include more ‘peripheral’ activities, working on the soft relational competencies, and taking care of students from a lifelong perspective. 

With the full-time MBA students, it’s harder, because they are more transactional then the executive MBA students. They apply because they are very ambitious people, and they expect an impressive return on investment. Thus, the Business Schools teach them all the content they may need, even if it’s useless in the very short term. I guess we should take more of a longitudinal perspective, moving from a full-time MBA to a full-lifetime MBA programme.

I see a potential change in our business model, because the one we all adopt currently is still very transactional; we are still based on a very old model. We operate like factories, but we should act as theatres. We are not creating a product, but having a transformative impact on our students. 

Jane E Armstrong, Senior Director, Education Industry Solutions, International,

Students have greater expectations and are used to a more relationship-driven, customised approach in their day-to-day lives, due to consumerism. Thus, they have similar expectations of their universities. There is an opportunity for universities to further enhance relationships with students and to deliver a more personal experience, making it easier for them to get the support they need – inside and outside of the classroom – and to provide more rewarding and enriched learning experiences. 

As one university president often states: ‘Everything in the classroom should be hard, but everything outside of the classroom should be easy.’ 

This is where there is an opportunity to make a university more ‘consumer’ driven and to deliver a more seamless, tailored student experience. 

In terms of future opportunities, universities need to leverage – and harness – their data. However, that’s often challenging because the data tends to be very siloed and disconnected. Increasingly, universities are asking how they can connect the data across their institutions so that they can have the insights to make the strategic decisions needed to deliver their missions and visions. 

Also, universities are increasingly exploring and adopting new technologies that support ‘cradle to grave’ – from recruiting the right students to their institutions (those who they know will be successful) to engaging these individuals as lifelong learners (the people who want to come back for reskilling or upskilling). Thinking about all these opportunities, universities are fundamentally questioning how to adapt their business models and embrace digital transformation.

Grażyna Aniszewska-Banaś, Associate professor, Canadian Executive MBA Director, SGH Warsaw School of Economics 

I think that digitalisation changes the consumption patterns, the communication patterns, and requires some cultural changes in terms of the organisational culture of universities, knowledge centres, and MBA centres. It requires different values, norms and ways of thinking about the students. I believe in creating communities, because whether we’re talking about customers or clients, it is better in terms of values to create a community where every member has the support of the community. 

In terms of the delivery of knowledge, an idea that we have in our programme comes to mind. Every graduate is able to go back to our School and take any course they want for free – so that they can refresh the knowledge and find out about about trends, gain new skills, and so on. What’s important is the sharing of the experience and skills. So, the students receive some of their knowledge from our graduates; they are practitioners, they can share their experience with current students. 

I think that the changes in the business models are about the relationship, about the creation of community, and being open to the knowledge of our graduates and the students. It should be two-way communication.

José M Martínez-Sierra, General Director, UPF Barcelona School of Management

Right after I arrived at Harvard in May 2012, there was a headline in the Boston Globe saying that Harvard and MIT would join EdX. A number of articles said that was going to change higher education, with these two institutions (and others) giving out degrees for free. There was a wave that said everything was going to change. What we have learned from it is that the fundamentals always remain. 

Education, and our Schools, are providing students with two things: one is skills, and the other thing is a network. That professional network is going to be with you throughout your life. It’s a combination of what we do in the classroom while the students are in our Schools, plus this great club that we are trying to build at the same time. 

I think that the transformation we are going through is in the second part of our dimension; it’s the community we are creating and how this community and professional network is coming along in relation to our learning.

Gerardine Doyle, Full Professor, UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, University College Dublin

MBA students come to us because they want an excellent, personalised student experience; they want to be here in person and on campus. The experience of the pandemic has accentuated this – students crave human connection and interaction. In the coming years, our challenge is going to be around how we achieve and maintain that optimal experience; which elements of our programmes (teaching, teamwork, and co-curricular activities) will be in person and which may be suitable for the online environment? While our students are with us on campus, how can we provide the best possible student experience? 

This is going to be our greatest challenge: finding that optimal blend that will achieve our learning outcomes, while also providing a personalised learning journey. Conversations with our students throughout the pandemic brought this idea of personalisation to the fore as a feature of our MBA programmes which is very important to them.

We reopened our campus for two weeks in September 2020; however, we then had to return to online delivery due to public health requirements. Our students crave and value peer-to-peer interaction and strong connections with faculty, and so the relationships they build up during their MBA journey contribute to that special and personalised experience. 

Our cohorts of 2020 and 2021 have asked whether they can return in future to participate in new modules and executive programmes, which highlights that the lifelong learning for MBA alumni is definitely something that our students desire.

We create a personalised experience. For example, each individual student has their own mentor – an alumna/alumnus of our MBA programme, many of whom are working in senior positions in leading global financial services, technology or pharma companies, or are entrepreneurs. 

During their MBA journey, our students work closely with their mentor who guides them throughout their learning and leadership journey. This mentorship experience is very important.  

In addition to the classroom experience, and the rapport developed with our faculty, extracurricular and co-curricular activities are critical to the personalised, lived student experience. 

We have been innovative in developing the leadership skill set of our students by enhancing our global leadership programme and enabling our students to develop their intercultural competencies.

Roundtable attendees

Grazyna Aniszewska-Banas, Director of Executive MBA, SGH Warsaw

Jane E Armstrong,
Senior Director, International Education Industry Solutions, Salesforce

Vincenzo Baglieri,
Associate Dean of Masters Programs, SDA Bocconi

Timothy M Devinney,
Chair and Professor
of International Business, Alliance Manchester Business School

Gerardine Doyle,
Associate Dean, UCD, Michael Smurfit
Business School

Jose Manuel Martinez-Sierra,
Director General, UPF Barcelona School
of Management

Julio Villalobos,
CXO Strategic Advisor, Salesforce

This article originally appeared in Ambition – the magazine of the Association of MBAs.

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