When in 2021 Marcin Trockimczyk was pondering his choice of business school to study for an MBA, he knew he faced a serious decision.
“An MBA is something you only do once in your lifetime, so it is important to pick the one that not only gives you good value for your money, but also good value for your time,” he tells bne IntelliNews.
For professional reasons, Mr Trockimczyk, an actuarial manager with professional services firm Deloitte in Warsaw, preferred an online programme, rather than a traditional classroom MBA. He felt confident about this, having turned to online studying with the onset of COVID-19 in 2020.
For this, he could still have have opted for a local Polish school, which would have both boosted his domestic business contacts and been far cheaper than any leading Western institution. But, confident that he was already well plugged into his local business community, other priorities held sway, especially the quality of education and the institution's placement in international rankings.
And having already studied for an MSc in economics at Durham University, north-east England, he was confident regarding the educational standards he could expect there.
“Durham has a global reputation for teaching excellence and seems to be always placed towards the top of the more popular rankings,” he told bne IntelliNews.
Mr Trockimczyk's decision is understandable: Central and East European business schools rarely appear in the global rankings (in part, critics say, because the ranking evaluations were devised to suit Western conditions) and despite widespread progress, they have, since 1990, largely been playing catch-up with their Western counterparts, a result of the region's communist past.
But with COVID-19 largely mastered, does the subsequent expansion and increased exposure to sophisticated, online education mean digital programmes offered by Western schools are now a serious threat to the still fledgling bricks and mortar schools established in their local markets? And if so, can CEE management schools effectively fight back?
While online MBA programmes with a highly ranked US or Western European school certainly represent competition, a majority of students, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, prefer classroom contact and value this above the flexibility gained from a fully online programme if given the choice, says Andreas Antonopoulos, Rector at the University of New York in Prague.
True, the switch to online teaching caused by the pandemic “expanded the market and also allowed for flexibility, but it has not replaced the off-line market. The value of face-to-face remains, especially on the MBA level, a critical component for serious candidates. The peer-to-peer learning and the lifelong network of people you meet on an MBA are still held in the highest regard,” he argues.
Certainly, the recruitment experience at his school supports his case.
“A lot of applicants mentioned that they'd like to wait for the post-covid, off-line experience again as they thought their investments would be worth more. The fall 2020 and 2021 intakes were down by 50% or more,” he says.
Naturally, such a plunge in student intake is difficult for any institution to ride out, but the rebound, when it came last year, revealed the scale of the pent-up demand.
“In fall '22, the rebound was so strong that we went above our long-term annual intake numbers, and we introduced a waiting list as we did not want to compromise the academic limitation of students per cohort. Fall '23 is too early to say, but so far it seems similarly strong,” Prof Antonopoulos says.
Indeed, without exception, all academics interviewed for this article stressed the value, however intangible, of the human contact in the classroom experience.
“After we started face-to-face classes again, … it was a wonderful atmosphere in the classes, everyone was excited, professors and students alike! It was a much, much better learning and teaching experience than what we'd had in online classes,” says Alexandru Maxim, of faculty of Economics and Business Administration at the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iasi, Romania.
It's also questionable if an MBA from a high- ranking Western school is necessarily the best degree for all, says Danica Purg, Dean of IEDC Bled School of Management, in Slovenia.
“I think one of the main advantages of our [CEE] schools is because students need the network. In these schools we also know more about what is happening in our area, we really understand the local situation. It's nice to listen to someone from far away, but I can tell you we are discovering more and more that students say to us that we really meet very relevant people here, and I got relevant education for this region,” Prof Purg tells bne IntelliNews.
The experience of Luis Ndreka (pictured above), who in early 2020 left his home and job in Albania to study in the United States, is a case in point. Then aged 27, Ndreka had been sales and marketing manager at Lufra, a very successful dairy company owned and developed by his family since the collapse of the communist regime.
He was in New York, and signed up to a local school for an American MBA when the pandemic hit. Having decided to return to Albania, he found that online studies were “not efficient”.
“The time difference made it very hard to follow classes. But even if this [had not been] a problem, the engagement online was far from my expectations. It made a huge difference from being there to meeting online with classmates and professors,” he tells bne IntelliNews.
As a result, he switched to a modular, executive MBA programme at the IEDC in Bled.
Ndreka expressed “no regrets at all” about choosing the Slovene school.
“I decided to join an MBA for totally personal [reasons] and not to advance my career, so it was not necessary for me to have a degree from a fancy university name,” he says, adding: “I needed the MBA to gain real knowledge and good networking for the CEE region. IEDC did that perfectly for me.”