Business schools go bespoke

CUSTOM-FIT COURSES | Zoë MacLeod, director of the Centre for Coaching and Workplace Innovation at Royal Roads University; Murray MacTavish, director of TWU’s MBA program

From shorter certificate programs to the hyper-local EMBA, B.C. business schools are learning to stay ahead by catering to their students’ needs

After a sluggish few years, business schools are back, with a majority of MBA programs globally reporting an uptick in applications in 2015, according to a survey by the Graduate Management Admissions Council. Still, given diminished financial support from employers for executive education, part-time and executive MBA programs remain a tough sell—and with more than 40 b-schools now in Canada, competition for students is fierce. 

B.C.’s business schools are responding to this challenge by offering highly specialized programs and delivery models—in some cases, almost bespoke solutions. “Customized and individualized education is what we see as the way forward,” says Zoë MacLeod, director of the Centre for Coaching and Workplace Innovation at Royal Roads University.

RRU pioneered a blended delivery model when it began offering MBAs in 2001, combining online coursework with in-person residencies that allow students to work full-time while they study. In recent years, RRU has also created executive-level certificate programs aimed at cost-conscious students for whom even a part-time program can be prohibitively expensive. In 2015, it launched four new graduate certificate programs in advanced executive coaching, change management, workplace innovation, and organizational demand and development—the same blended model but on a much shorter six-month timeline.

Increasingly, time is as much of a consideration as cost for students, says MacLeod, who notes that in 2015, RRU broke its certificate programs apart into individual courses that run nine weeks. The benefit of offering courses à la carte is that it’s easier to get employers to chip in, she says, with students more likely to get funding for one course than a whole program. “It’s about being flexible but still ensuring we’re offering the topics that people are interested in.” Even for those who opt for a full MBA, specialization is fast becoming the norm: this year, RRU introduced two niche streams, in European and Asia Pacific markets, in response to student and industry demand for international specializations. 

SFU’s Beedie School of Business has taken quite a different approach to the question of specialization by focusing on the hyper-local. Its Prince Rupert-based Northwestern B.C. EMBA, launched last fall, aims to fill an education gap in that part of the province, drawing students from Terrace and Kitimat as well. “We’re really good at cultivating what’s in our own backyard,” says Valerie Zuccolo, manager of Teck graduate programs at Beedie. “The idea was that this would focus more on the interests of the people who are living and working up there.”

The three-year, part-time EMBA is delivered in partnership with Northwestern Community College and offers curriculum tailored to regional interests, such as resource development, First Nations organizations, and social and cultural issues present in small northern communities. Like SFU’s Aboriginal EMBA, another recently established specialization, the northern program’s entrance requirements place less emphasis on prior post-secondary education than professional experience. This, Zuccolo says, helps even the playing field in an area of the province where not everyone has the chance to head to university after high school. “We look more at where they’ve come from and what they achieved when they apply.”

At other schools, partnerships with specific industries, or even companies, have been key to formulating new programs. UBC’s Sauder School of Business is working closely with the mining sector to launch a specialized MBA in the next few years, while UVic’s Gustavson School of Business launched an MBA this year specifically for Telus employees.

And then there are the schools whose draw is less “what” than “how.” At Trinity Western University—one of two schools in Canada to offer an MBA specialization in nonprofit and charitable management—students are attracted to small classes and business education that comes with a conscience, says Murray MacTavish, director of TWU’s MBA program. “We come at it from an intentional, values-based approach. We look at what it is to do good business and do it well.” Although a Christian university, MacTavish says students of many faiths have participated in the program and that the concentration on ethics and values jibes with a growing sensibility that business should benefit communities in a holistic sense.

Students are also attracted to the intimate nature of the TWU program: each MBA student sits down with MacTavish to outline their schedule and goals at the outset, creating a personalized education plan. “If a student misses a class, I’m emailing them. You’re noticed, you’re on the radar,” MacTavish says. “We’re attentive to each person’s journey.” Increasingly, it’s a sentiment that holds true at business schools across the province.