The year of COVID at INSEAD
In a year marked by travel bans, border closures, quarantines, and changing immigration and visa rules, INSEAD has arguably had a tougher time than any other business school. With major campuses in Fontainebleau just outside Paris and Singapore, as well as smaller ones in Abu Dhabi and since February 2020 San Francisco, its footprint is among the most global of any school.
In a normal year, pre-COVID, the school’s full-time MBA program alone welcomes students from around 80 countries in two classes of 500 which start in the middle and at the start of the year. In other words, INSEAD has a lot of moving parts at the best of times. The logistics of keeping the show on the road and delivering a world-class MBA to almost 1,000 students are mind-boggling. Early on in the health crisis, in March, INSEAD Dean Ilian Mihov was even struck with the coronavirus and had to be hospitalized.
So how has INSEAD coped in this chaotic year? And how has the pandemic experience changed the way it will deliver its MBA in the future?
‘IT’S BEEN A CRAZY TIME, DEFINITELY’
“It’s been a crazy time, definitely,” Katy Montgomery, INSEAD’s associate dean of degree programs, tells Poets&Quants. “But what has remained the same is that we believe a business education is a force for good. Our basic principle is that we transform students who transform business who transform the world.”
Katy Montgomery, associate dean of degree programs at INSEAD
The basis of that mission is diversity, in both students and faculty (see Meet the INSEAD MBA Class of 2020). A remarkable 93% of the faculty are deemed to be international, while 96% of the students are from outside France and Singapore, the two primary campuses where MBAs study. That truly global dimension is what has long differentiated its MBA program from others.
Since 2010, the INSEAD has topped Poets&Quants’ international MBA rankings six times. Alongside London Business School – which took the top spot the other four times – it is widely regarded as one of the world’s best. Starting compensation packages for INSEAD MBA grads are around $180,000, just slightly below the top U.S. ones, and it regularly performs spectacularly in the Financial Times rankings, placing fourth globally in 2020, and reaching second in 2018.
If you want to understand what makes INSEAD tick, the school’s slogan is probably the most concise statement of its mission: “the business school for the world.” Unlike many American business schools, its MBAs come from everywhere, and go everywhere. In a year when the world shuts its borders, that poses problems.
STUDENT MOBILITY IS ESSENTIAL TO THE INSEAD FORMULA FOR TRANSFORMATION
INSEAD’s core belief is that mixing culturally different people yields viewpoints and experiences that are critical to true transformation. Student mobility is essential to make that magic happen. “A lot of times when I talk to students they tell me that their study group of five people is the most diverse group they’ve ever been in. This is our philosophy, our spirit, our DNA,” says Montgomery. Diversity comes in many flavors — in terms of sector and role, for instance – but for INSEAD it is most clearly seen in terms of both classes’ and faculty’s internationalism.
Add in the fact that the school’s 10-month MBA is also incredibly intense, putting even greater pressure on the school when the whole of that precious time is disrupted by a pandemic.
Which means that in 2020, a school like INSEAD faced significant barriers. INSEAD has two full-time MBA intakes a year, the J-class which enters in September and graduates the following July, and the D-class which enters in January and graduates in December. Those starting in July 2020 found their plans thrown into disarray by the pandemic.
DECIDING AGAINST THE ‘ROOMIES VS. ZOOMIES’ APPROACH
Some students couldn’t travel. Others decided the uncertainty meant that they were uncomfortable handing in their notices to quit their jobs. Still, others found that even if they could get a student visa to travel, their families were not able to move with them, or didn’t want to relocate during a health crisis. Added to the problems of traveling, INSEAD knew that its classroom capacities would be cut because of social distancing.
Usually, a class is 500 strong, but given all the extra logistical problems, the school decided to reduce its 2020 J-class to 310. Most of the rest deferred to the D-class which starts in January 2021, meaning that this class will number 610. “This really complex school took on another level of complexity,” says Montgomery.
What made life even more challenging was that, unlike some schools which embraced the “Roomies and Zoomies” approach and immediately offered digital learning and a hybrid MBA, INSEAD remained committed to its face-to-face model. Mask wearing, frequent hand washing, social distancing, assigned seating in classes and cafeterias became part of the protocol for returning to campus. Classrooms were cleaned between sessions, and faculty, wearing transparent masks, were required to stay within a specified space at the front of the classroom. “The default position was that if you are cleared and the government allows us, we will be teaching in person,” Montgomery says.
MBA STUDENTS WERE BEING TESTED FOR COVID EVERY SEVEN DAYS
The school has never created an online MBA or integrated many online elements into programs. With the exception of those having to quarantine or isolate, or who had tested positive for COVID, at the time of writing [late December] everyone in Singapore was attending face-to-face classes, and it was only in November when the French government canceled all in-person teaching that Fontainebleau stopped operating face-to-face and went fully digital.
Obviously, classes were not entirely normal. Every participant was being tested every seven days, classes were socially distanced and there was a stringent regime of sanitization and mask-wearing. Some activities were disrupted. Factory tours were replaced with virtual versions, with students wearing virtual reality (VR) headsets, job-fairs moved online, guest speakers spoke via screens and some electives were delivered remotely. However, the school insists that a full-fat MBA was still delivered. “Nothing has been canceled, they just exist in a different format,” says Montgomery.
One part of the INSEAD experience which did look different in 2020 was the critical summer work placement, or “experience,” which often leads to a job offer. Many of the corporations which usually take INSEAD MBA candidates were not able to this year, and two-thirds of students worked with start-ups, with the same number doing them remotely. Singapore was in a circuit-breaker lockdown at the exact time people would have been doing their placements.
Students at INSEAD during the pandemic
NO NEW HIRES BY THE SCHOOL’S TYPICAL THREE MAJOR EMPLOYERS OF INSEAD MBAS
One upshot is that the list of firms that employed MBAs this year looks different from usual. As usual, plenty of graduates went to perennial big employers like Bain, McKinsey and BCG but more of INSEAD’s graduates have gone into private equity and venture capital, notably in the tech space. Whether this is a result of COVID, a new trend, and how much it is attributable to INSEAD’s new San Francisco outpost in the middle of the tech industry’s ecosystem, is unclear.
Still, it seems that people have found employment. In the last non-COVID year for which records are available, 84% of graduates had landed a job within three months (the figure for both Harvard and Stanford was 88%) and it is too early to know whether this year’s numbers will be different, but “it’s looking positive,” says Montgomery.
The enforced change in teaching methods even had some benefits. While in the past students would have to move across the world to take a class with a particular professor – or, if they could not, simply to miss out on that course – delivering those online has allowed anyone who wanted to, to join in. The tours delivered by VR headsets could become a regular fixture which could avoid travel.
GUEST SPEAKERS ON SCREENS INSTEAD OF IN CLASSROOMS
Having speakers appear on a screen has meant that more senior people who could not jet hundreds of miles to appear in person were willing to spare some time to address students. Some classes have been tweaked, too, to accommodate the new reality. For example, a course on negotiation was re-tooled to look at how to carry out high-stakes negotiations when you cannot meet in person. Also, professors have become even better at maximizing the all-important face-to-face time and the pre-and post-classroom learning, an enhancement that the school hopes will stick.
How have applications held up? “Thus far we’re seeing good numbers,” says Montgomery. In fact, after MBA applications for its September intake soared by 58%, INSEAD decided to slash enrollment in the class by 38% so it could carefully manage social distancing guidelines and hold all of its MBA classes in-person. The decision to cut back the size of the incoming class to just 310 students from 500 is the most unique approach to delivering an MBA program in the midst of the pandemic, especially in the aftermath of a record surge in apps.
Meantime, those who had applied for the two classes that started in 2020 were already well down the route of applying and being accepted when the pandemic hit, and those applying now will do so with their eyes open about the situation in 2021, and with the hope that effective vaccines will be rolled out soon. The traditional pattern that people want to do MBAs during a recession also suggests that 2021 will be a good year.
‘WHY DOES CLOTHING HAVE TO BE BINARY?’
INSEAD officials say that they are seeing more applications from Africa and the Middle East, largely because of a concerted effort to recruit from those regions to further boost the diversity that is at the heart of INSEAD’s mission. The school is painfully aware that it lags in some aspects of diversity – just a third of MBA students are women, and 20% of faculty. As Montgomery says, “we are still pushing 330 female leaders out into the world” every year and the numbers are similar to those at other top European schools, including London Business School and Spain’s IESE Business School, though well behind the likes of Wharton and Harvard Business School whose numbers of female students are solidly in the 40s.
It is to address issues like this that the school is creating a new Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, whose head will report directly to the dean. Indeed, INSEAD is looking to heighten its understanding of diversity in other ways, too – racial, socioeconomic, and sexual identity are all on the radar. “Recently we were teaching a case-study on Lululemon moving from women’s clothing into men’s, and someone asked, ‘Why does clothing have to be binary?’ We are always looking to add new perspectives like that,” Montgomery says.
2020 has been a tough year, and the world is about to change in ways that we do not yet understand. What we do know is that many ambitious, globally-minded people still see an MBA from a school like INSEAD as good preparation for whatever the future throws at them. Why is it in such demand? That is always hard to pinpoint, but it is notable that even in a year like the one just ended, it has not just survived but continued to look inwards and focus on its own evolution. There’s a lesson there.
DON’T MISS: MEET THE INSEAD MBA CLASS OF 2020 or WHY INSEAD ENROLLED ONE OF ITS SMALLEST CLASSES IN YEARS AFTER A MASSIVE 58% INCREASE IN APPLICATIONS
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