IN THE DYNAMIC landscape of 2023, Sharika Jain, a digital marketing specialist, manages a full-time job while immersing herself in challenges of a full-time Masters in Business Administration (MBA) course. How is she undertaking two gruelling endeavours when most people find it tough to manage even one? The answer is online MBA — God's or rather AICTE's (All India Council For Technical Education's) answer to those who struggle with the predicament of choosing one over the other.

It was more than a decade ago that the notion of giving a fillip to the career with a respectable degree from the comfort of one's home was considered. But a paradigm shift came in March 2021 when AICTE decided to recognise online MBAs, though with some caveats (degree must state it is 'online' and minimum 50% marks in graduation). It also said that classroom infrastructure was no longer essential for offering an online MBA degree. This, along with Covid, gave a push to the online avatar of what had started off as a post-graduate diploma in 1960s and '70s. The pandemic, especially, became a catalyst for individuals such as Rajat Agarwal, who seized the opportunity to upskill and expand his family business. "Being online was more flexible and affordable in every way," he says.

Agarwal's story echoes a broader trend. A Redseer Strategy Consultants report predicts that total addressable markets for online higher education and lifelong learning are expected to reach $3.6 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively, in FY25. This will be a massive jump from $400 million and $100 million, respectively, in FY20.

One of the significant shifts among working professionals is the rise in demand for online courses, especially post-graduate courses like management. While online MBA offers benefits such as flexibility, accessibility and cost-efficiency, it has not made any dent on the classroom experience. Experts believe it may never do. "Online has no impact on offline as they are separate programmes catering to different demographics," Debashis Sanyal, director at Great Lakes Institute of Management, Gurgaon, tells Fortune India. The institute commenced the online programme in October last year. It has enrolled 1,000 students in both years with minimal dropout rates. "There seems to be enough space for both to successfully co-exist," says Prof Ramabhadran Thirumalai, deputy dean, Academic Programmes, ISB.

In 2021, there were 4,74,249 enrollees in offline MBA programmes compared to 1,30,731 in online programmes, indicating a significant preference for traditional MBA formats, as per a study by All-India Survey On Higher Education. And the reason for that, the professor explains, is that there are two segments: One that wants a fully immersive in-person experience and interactions with faculty and peers and the other that wants the convenience of studying from home. The second group does not want to travel or move out, prefers to continue with the jobs and likes to learn at own pace. The online MBA caters to this market, which is slowly but surely burgeoning. Young management aspirants, who are usually at a stage of life where they can afford to dedicate themselves to a full-time on-campus programme, will continue to keep the offline admission rate up. On the other hand, the working professional demographic is fuelling the surge in online enrolments, positioning online MBA as a vital component of the evolving education landscape.

Skill Resurgence

From job market perspective, traditional MBA has higher value due to the rich networking opportunities and comprehensive learning experiences it provides.

However, Nikhil Barshikar, founder and CEO of Imarticus Learning, an edtech company, says it's essential to recognise that the value of online MBA, or what is increasingly being referred to as hybrid or blended MBA, may evolve as businesses embrace technology and remote working.

Amid layoffs, impending skill crisis and a realisation that upskilling can yield a high return on investment, industry and recruiters are gradually recognising the talent emerging from online platforms. "The preference for one type of MBA over another often depends on job role and industry demands. Some sectors value practical skills that online MBAs can offer while others prioritise broader business acumen and networking, which traditional MBAs excel in," says Barshikar. As trends evolve, recruiters are acknowledging the adaptability of online MBA pass-outs. And the capricious nature of work has forced recruiters to become open to candidates from online as well as regular MBA backgrounds.

Meanwhile, government encouragement to online programmes has become a force in shaping recruiter preferences. With introduction of reforms by UGC in 2019 and amendments in 2022, there has been a transformation in how these degrees are perceived in the job market. "Recruiters are increasingly viewing online MBA as a valuable and credible qualification, on a par with on-campus degrees," says Siddharth Banerjee, CEO of UNIVO Education. He adds while the reputation of the institution and relevance of skills and experience continue to be important factors, the government's endorsement of online degrees has elevated their acceptability among recruiters.

Highlighting the democratisation of the MBA degree with the popularity of online courses, Banerjee says several online MBA programmes incorporate features of traditional courses like networking and campus experience as well as enhance experiential learning via cutting-edge technologies such as AI and data science, setting them apart from traditional programmes.

Jain, who takes her classes after work and during weekends, says she can apply what she studies immediately. This gives her an edge over colleagues. "It is becoming popular with executives for upskilling, topping up knowledge, promotion or shifting jobs," says Sanyal of Great Lakes.

As per University Grants Commission (UGC), enrolments for online education grew 170% while open and distance learning enrolments increased by 41.7% in 2022 from 2021. At postgraduation level, MBA is the most sought-after online course with 28,956 enrolments, according to official data.

Another reason for popularity of online MBA is the easier admission process. For mainstream MBA programmes, students have to clear tests such as CAT, XAT, MAT, NMAT and SNAP. These are conducted once a year and require long preparation and excellent academic record. The tuition fee, too, is exorbitant. Cut-off percentage for credible colleges is high. Those restrictions don't apply while pursuing online MBA.

For Inayat Chaudhary, 25, the second wave of Covid was a time for reflection. She enrolled in an online course from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies to fill up her gap years. While her passion was somewhere else, she thought MBA would be a good back-up; the online version seemed appropriate. "There is no difference academically between the two MBAs. It is a matter of what fits the bill," she adds.

In Trend

In fact, after Covid, recruiters are seeing value in online programmes as their quality remains stable. What's furthering the cause of online education is efficient integration of technology and data analytics in curriculum and programme design. The shift has given students access to real-world knowledge that is applicable to the modern business environment.

Online MBA students can even engage with peers and business professionals on emerging virtual platforms. Students benefit from these opportunities by developing soft skills and professional networks, say experts. "By placing a stronger emphasis on real-world experience and global perspectives, online MBA programmes are creating graduates who are capable of handling the demands of a globalised business environment," says Agarwal, who is often required to traverse the globe and connect with individuals of all nationalities.

One of the factors that makes these courses appealing is e-curriculum and virtual lectures by popular academics. Interestingly, this, along with minimal fee, can help students from rural areas compete with students from cities. Sanyal of Great Lakes says this could also mean that demand for Tier III/IV schools could dip if more students opt for online programmes from top B-schools.

Additionally, with fintech, metaverse, data science, digital marketing, entrepreneurship and AI disrupting the system, management courses around these areas are gaining traction. However, these are short certificate programmes specifically designed for people to augment skills in their fields. Data science, business analytics, marketing management, predictive analytics and finance seem to be the most popular choices in electives as well as certificate programmes, say experts.

All in all, in-class MBA programmes may not be under threat but online programmes are booming, says Sanyal.

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