Trends With: Ian Richardson, Stockholm Business School

Stockholm Business School (SBS), Stockholm University delivers executive education programmes to mid-senior level executives across all sectors. In addition to its internationally accredited Executive MBA programme, it co-founded the national AI for Executives programme and has been partnered with the European Club Association (ECA) in delivering business education to leaders of Europe’s most successful football clubs over the past 8 years. 

Dr. Ian Richardson is Director of Executive Education at SBS, and has a background as a business leader in the European media and technology sectors. He is an Executive Board member of the BSCC and works with organisations in Sweden, and internationally, in the areas of higher education, strategic transformation, and strategic AI adoption. 

What trends do you see within your line of business?

Where to start? The global higher education sector is undergoing radical transformation – the most significant in its history, in fact – driven by a combination of factors including emergent technologies, demographic shifts, industrial disruption, and fundamental questions related to the ongoing relevance of institutions that were created at a time of very different societal challenges. Business schools, long-time beneficiaries of the marketisation shift of the past 50 years, also find themselves looking somewhat outmoded by the realities of dynamic markets and the strategic demands of new technology.

In short, there are important questions related to the long-term viability of existing modes of higher education and the future direction of the sector. The implications of AI for research and educational practice, in particular, will result in profound shifts – and, given longstanding institutional tendencies, I’d say these changes will likely be resisted rather than welcomed by many in the sector. The door will be left ajar, therefore, for new players and new approaches – further threatening the position of incumbents.

More immediately, present economic challenges have created tougher conditions for professional education providers – high inflation, high interest rates, and a general lack of confidence has resulted in reduced training budgets, a greater focus on specific types of training (our own “AI for Executives” programme being a case in point), and a desire for lower-cost alternatives. These factors fuel a general shift towards digital learning solutions but, as we saw after the pandemic, there remains a strong preference for physical, “high-touch”, training experiences at the executive level.

From your perspective, what are the greatest challenges right now?

Within the context of higher education, I’d suggest the biggest challenge is in driving a culture of innovation in our programmes and institutions. The sector is at pains to talk about world-leading research, and evidence-based learning, but our higher education institutions are frequently perceived as passive, reactive, and out-of-touch – we need to close the gap, address contemporary challenges, and become more immediately relevant to the present and future needs of society. The strategic implications of emergent technologies, for instance, and the associated reskilling and upskilling demands of our economies, present opportunities for higher education institutions to demonstrate a much more explicit connection between their activities and pressing national / international challenges. From the perspective of business schools, I think we need to rapidly step-up and respond to this requirement – too many institutions have failed to adapt their value propositions to the realities of more complex and uncertain times.

The biggest challenge facing the higher education sector is not new technology – it is institutional inertia.

And, opportunities?

There are incredible opportunities in global higher education but, as we’ve seen with MOOC’s and digital learning advances over the past 20 years, development in the sector hasn’t been as “friction-free” as many had hoped – there remain significant hurdles.

New and emerging technologies may help to create further traction for edtech, but the biggest obstacle to substantive change is our attachment to existing norms in higher education – not to mention the value placed on institutional certification. This is why existing institutions could be among the biggest winners – whether they will be depends on their willingness to self-disrupt and challenge long-held totems. As things stand, new entrants are re-shaping expectations and innovative collaborations are redefining boundaries. We’re also witnessing the emergence of truly international educational brands and platforms – with such a development, the traditional role and physical proximity of universities may well be called into question. There are many good things about our current systems of knowledge production that we should look to preserve, but this shouldn’t prevent a fundamental questioning of existing practices. I believe we will see significant structural change over the next 10-15 years – it’s a challenging and exciting time to be involved in the sector.