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December 9, 2020 —The International Consortium for Executive Education (UNICON) recently released findings from its annual membership benchmarking survey, which includes responses from nearly 100 universities around the world with significant university-based executive education programs.  Key findings from the survey include:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on university-based executive education around the world.
  • As a result of the pandemic, university-based executive education providers have accelerated their conversion to digital delivery.
  • Most schools have created new or significantly changed staffing roles and processes to support the delivery of digital programs and indicated that these changes have been effective in delivering high-quality learning experiences.

99 of UNICON’s 115 member schools completed the survey which covered the period from July 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020.  Collectively they reported that after several years of steady growth, the pandemic caused a reduction in revenue of about a third, and accelerated a significant change that had been underway in the way university-based executive education is delivered. Prior to this year, the preferred method of delivery was face-to-face, either on campus or at the client site. And while there has been a gradual shift toward remote learning in the last decade, the pandemic caused the industry to innovate at a much more rapid pace.

The survey found a marked acceleration in the adoption of learning technology, particularly synchronous – or live – platforms. The percentage of schools that had employed synchronous learning (e.g. “live online”) grew from 71% to 74% in the four years before the pandemic. For the 2019-20 year, that percentage increased to 98%, with more than 53% of programs using these technologies.

“The COVID-19 pandemic had an unprecedented impact on our industry,” said Lise Hammergren, Chairperson of UNICON, and Executive Vice President at BI Norwegian Business School. “With our corporate clients around the world unwilling or unable to travel, we had to re-think how best to meet their individual and organizational development goals.  So, while the pandemic is undoubtedly a dark cloud, it has presented us with a silver lining. We have spent many years working out how to use technology to deliver or augment our executive education offerings. So, it was a very natural pivot for university-based executive education providers to find ways to meet our clients’ development needs at a time when face-to-face interactions are so difficult.”

In terms of client satisfaction, most schools reported no major difference in feedback quality, while a small but growing number noted that program feedback is improving in the digital environment. “There is increasing evidence that some of what we do works even better in the digital world,” said Eric Bergemann, Senior Director of Executive Programs at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, and co-chair of the UNICON Benchmarking Committee. “My colleagues in the industry have embraced technology with great enthusiasm, often piloting leading edge tools that enhance remote learning. We are using team messaging apps, online visual collaboration platforms, and more.   It is easier to include guest appearances by senior executives when they don’t have to travel to be present in our programs.  But beyond that, we are reimagining the executive education experience to engage our learners and better facilitate real time application. With the rapid improvement in remote learning, we are able to create a very high-quality experience for executives, while saving them the costs associated with travel – both time and money.”

Hammergren added, “At a recent UNICON conference, participants were asked to use one word to describe how they feel after the last nine months. While the words ‘exhausted’ and ‘challenged’ certainly made the list, by far the most frequently used word was ‘excited.’ We don’t know if our industry will ever again look exactly the same as it did a year ago. And that’s OK. Our members are committed to finding even better ways to support the learning and development of individuals and companies whether that’s in-person, through the use of technology or – more likely – a blend of the two. We are confident that we will create new models that will have a positive impact on the lives of exponentially more people around the world.”

These feelings are very familiar to us at Telfer Executive Programs. As new members of UNICON, we have definitely felt both “challenged” and “excited” as we navigated through the fog of the pandemic. “The experience in the past few months as we adapted and shifted to virtual delivery has been remarkable and exhilarating – and the lessons multiply each day,” said Glen Orsak, Director of Telfer Executive Programs at the Telfer School of Management.  “After successfully adapting and delivering virtually all of our executive level programs to a virtual format, I am gratified that we continue to receive consistently high ratings from the participants regarding the impact and quality of the learning experience. We were able to capitalize on the robust virtual learning platforms and prove what is possible – even in executive education – where the expectations and the motivations of the participants are so much different than for students in our more traditional academic education programs.” As we shift towards planning our program calendar for 2021, we remain dedicated to upholding our commitment to innovative design, timely and relevant content and highly experiential programming. More than anything, we remain grateful for our community of professional facilitators, faculty and leadership coaches that have continued to partner with us – and with our clients – to create exceptional personal and professional development opportunities for our clients during the pandemic.

Hammergren concluded: “The resilience of this industry is a testament to the hard work, careful listening and innovative mindset that characterizes UNICON’s member organizations.  UNICON is committed to helping each member school grow by presenting new approaches to executive learning through our conferences and research activities.”

About the survey

The questionnaire was developed by UNICON in collaboration with Percept Research to provide consortium members with a credible and comparative assessment of the non-degree executive education industry. It was conducted in August-October 2020 and included responses from 86 percent of UNICON’s membership.


Founded in 1972 as an association of executive education program directors, UNICON has evolved from an informal common-interest group into an incorporated non-profit consortium committed to advancing the field of university-based executive education. Membership is composed of 115 educational institutions from the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa.

UNICON is committed to the principle that university-based executive education provides a combination of thought-leadership at the highest levels of rigor, masterful learning environments and practical application that cannot be replicated by non-academic providers.

UNICON sponsors and conducts research studies that bring to the forefront this unique value of university-based executive education. It also provides industry/operational knowledge and networking opportunities for members through conferences, webinars, workshops, research, benchmarking, website, newsletters, job postings, discussion boards and forums and other activities.

© 2021 Telfer School of Management, University of Ottawa
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