What is the future of bachelor’s degrees in business?

Undergraduate expectations are evolving under the conditions imposed by Covid-19. Business Schools should see this as an opportunity to change their offerings for the better, says Jordi Robert-Ribes, CEO at EDUopinions

The education sector has been vastly impacted by the events of the last year. Whether it’s the increased dependence on online learning or the worsening economic forecast, student and graduate life has been altered drastically by the pandemic. Inevitably, this has also triggered a shift in student concerns and priorities. As institutions adapt to a ‘new normal,’ students have had their first taste of hybrid learning, and are discovering the pitfalls and benefits of it. Additionally, students that are now graduating into a challenging jobs market are re-evaluating which skills will help them to seek employment. 

This shift in student perspectives is undeniably a challenge for Business Schools and their offerings at the undergraduate, or bachelor’s, level. As such, a reimagining of the traditional bachelor’s programme may be necessary to live up to new student expectations. But what will the future of bachelor’s degrees in business and management look like? To explore this, it’s necessary to examine how student demands are changing and what institutions can do to adapt to shifting priorities. 

The pandemic’s impact

The greatest change to bachelor’s degrees over the last year is a direct result of the pandemic, and that’s the increase in online learning. The speed at which institutions were forced to transition to online learning meant that there were inevitably some teething issues in the use of technology and how students were taught. Students were quick to criticise. 

Pre-pandemic, it was already clear that universities were not putting education technology to use successfully. A 2019 YouGov report surveyed more than 1,000 students on the use of technology in the classroom, and only 11% of students said technology at their institutions was ‘innovative’. Though the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of technology in the classroom, it’s likely that, for many universities, not much has changed in that time with regards to the complexity of technology and how it’s being used.

Reviews from the EDUopinions website emphasise how students have reacted to the switch to online learning. One bachelor’s student of international business in the Netherlands, for example, explained their disappointment at the lack of contact between students and professors online. They also mentioned that the reliance on pre-recorded lectures has reduced engagement and participation in their course. 

Generation Z students – those currently graduating from university – are perhaps our most technologically advanced generation so far. These students want technology that is reliable and easily accessible. Universities must keep up with these demands if they want to continue to use digital technology in the classrooms for their bachelor’s degrees. 

A volatile graduate jobs market

As well as adapting to online learning, undergraduate students have also had to face the prospect of a more difficult jobs market on graduation. Before the pandemic hit, only half of graduates had confidence in their ability to find a job, but this has since dropped to a third, according to a survey of those in the UK from YouGov.

An annual report from the UK’s Institute of Student Employers (formerly the Association of Graduate Recruiters) also lays bare the scale of competition within the graduate jobs market. Its research shows that up to 90 candidates are now fighting for every graduate job. With so much competition for roles, it makes sense that graduates are reconsidering how to stand out from the crowd. For many, this means looking at the value of their bachelor’s degree and how well it has prepared them for a volatile skills market. 

Students are reassessing the value of their skills as well as how they can make themselves more employable. Even if graduates do secure a job or internship, the subsequent job retention has also been down because of the pandemic. Research from graduate careers organisation, Prospects, has revealed that among final-year students who secured a job post-graduation, 29% of them have subsequently lost them. An additional 28% of students have had their graduate job deferred or rescinded and 26% have lost their internships. It begs the questions, ‘are bachelor’s degrees preparing students fully for the unpredictable world of work?’ and, ‘could universities and Business Schools be doing more to give students the skills to rebound from job losses and succeed with future job applications?’

Many Business Schools already have a careers or jobs service that students can refer to during their studies. However, in a period of sustained economic downturn, it’s no longer enough for these to be voluntary. Careers need to be an integral part of the degree. In research from the University of Greenwich Students’ Union, students specifically asked for more guidance on the transition from graduation to full-time careers and requested that recruitment fairs be held throughout the year. More and more, students are looking to their degrees for not just technical skills, but job skills. Those that fail to provide this – especially during periods of jobs market volatility – will undoubtedly see trust in their institutions and bachelor’s degrees fall. 

Value for money 

Lockdowns have forced universities to close and move many classes entirely online, causing students to question their degree’s value for money. Although tuition fees have largely remained the same, many are calling for a change in what they pay while students have little or no access to campus facilities like libraries, careers services and department offices.

According to a 2020 survey from the Higher Education Policy Institute last year, 31% of students considered their courses poor or very poor value, up from 29% in 2019. The Office for Students – the independent regulator of higher education in England – noted in a keynote address in June 2021 that they had received more than 400 notifications from students and staff members since the outbreak of the pandemic relating to course satisfaction. Chief Executive, Nicola Dandridge, concluded that while online learning provides some benefits, face-to-face teaching is equally, and if not more, important for students. 

Dissatisfaction is noticeably more pronounced in the UK, where tuition fees for university education are now the highest among the world’s most influential countries. However, students elsewhere in Europe also believe that the value for money at their universities has decreased over the course of the pandemic, to date. One business administration student in Germany described, on EDUopinions, how their course content has decreased because of the pandemic, adding to other issues including a lack of communication and disorganised staff. 

How can institutions adapt?

From these trends, it’s clear that demands are shifting. Students want greater access to education through technology, to be better prepared for the jobs market, and to get more out of their tuition fees. But what does this all mean for universities and Business Schools? 

While we’re not yet at the stage where universities are set to decrease tuition fees for courses that mainly take place online, it’s true that more needs to be done to improve the value for money of bachelor’s degrees. We don’t yet know the future disruption that Covid-19 could bring, and universities need to be prepared for future bouts of online learning. This is especially true for business degrees, in which elements of in-person networking and group learning that often rely on a campus presence are crucial. Investment in more advanced education technology that can allow Business Schools to come closer to replicating real-world events online is therefore important. 

Outside the trends investigated here, students are also increasingly seeing the value in having diverse voices in the classroom – and online learning is a valuable tool to accelerate diversity in the classroom. While the switch to digital tools over the pandemic has had some teething issues, many students have welcomed the greater access to education that this has brought. In particular, disabled students have applauded long-awaited progress in flexibility and online learning. Now, many are hoping that digital tools remain a permanent feature of university life. For those who struggle to make it to on-campus lessons – because of health concerns or other constraints on their time, like work or caring responsibilities – online learning has been a blessing. 

To further improve access to education, it’s clear that universities should continue investing in online tools, and improving the flexibility of their bachelor’s degrees. This could mean introducing more part-time programmes, or simply broadening course availability so that some modules can be taken online while others remain tied to in-person teaching. 

However, improving accessibility is useless without also improving student support. In one EDUopinions review, a student in the Netherlands lamented that attendance policies did not accommodate those who felt uncomfortable returning to campus, yet at the same time it was impossible to obtain disability support or reasonable accommodation. As long as universities continue with a hybrid learning model but fail to support students who need more access to online resources, they won’t be offering students exactly what they want and need.

In terms of course content, it’s also obvious that bachelor’s degrees need to do more to encourage soft skills acquisition, as well as the technical skills required. Universities and Business Schools have always had a duty to prepare students for the outside world, but this has never before been tested in such a volatile economic period. Improved employability resources could encompass an increase in compulsory careers sessions starting from the first year of every bachelor’s degree, plus an increase in recruitment fairs, both on-campus and online. 

However, it may also be that bachelor’s degrees introduce additional modules on employability in the form, perhaps, of employment workshops and additional activities to improve soft skills. This level of preparing for employment is already available on many MBA courses, where students often complete a mandatory leadership or soft skills module. Introducing this to more programmes at the undergraduate level would go some way to preparing students for the future jobs market, no matter how unpredictable the economy might be when they graduate.

The future of bachelor’s degrees in business 

In the future, it’s clear that bachelor’s degrees are more likely to occupy a hybrid space – partly on-campus, and partly online. Tools like online discussion boards could help to keep students up to date even where they’re not at university, while the increased use of videoconferencing tools will also improve access to global conferences and other international opportunities, meaning a student’s experiences are no longer limited to the country they are in. Bachelor’s degrees may also feature additional courses on employability to secure job prospects. 

The changes in student demands also represent an opportunity for Business Schools to become more accessible and make university education more egalitarian. Make online learning a mainstay of bachelor’s degrees and you also offer opportunities to students who would otherwise not be able to make it onto a full-time campus programme, further diversifying the classroom. Introducing more mandatory employability sessions can also contribute to boosting social mobility by helping disadvantaged students into high-earning careers. A change in student priorities does not need to be seen as the death of the traditional bachelor’s degree, but as an opportunity for innovation and change. 

Jordi Robert-Ribes is CEO at student reviews platform, EDUopinions. Jordi holds a PhD in telecommunications engineering and a graduate diploma in finance management.

This article is taken from Business Impact’s print magazine (edition: February 2022-April 2022).

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