The MBA in International Health Management (MBA-IHM) has been on the road to success since it launched in 2013. Behind the comprehensive programme structure lies a great deal of work and organization. In an interview with the main drivers of the MBA-IHM — Julia Bohlius, Axel Hoffmann and Barbara Bürkin — we talk about the early days of the programme, the challenges and opportunities presented by COVID-19 and where the programme is headed.
Julia Bohlius is a trained physician and has been Head of the Education and Training Department at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) since August 2020. Previously, she was a researcher at the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Bern, where she led the Cancer Research Group. Barbara Bürkin has been working as coordinator of the study programme for three years. Her background is in public health and health education. The programme director Axel Hoffmann, who has been with the institute for more than twenty years, has a background in journalism and psychology. Before joining Swiss TPH, he managed multi-million funding programmes for special areas of public health at five major German universities.
The idea for the MBA-IHM goes back to the former director of Swiss TPH, Marcel Tanner, and his deputy, Nicolaus Lorenz. While working abroad, they noticed again and again that there were many well-trained public health professionals alongside many capable managers, but only a select few who had competencies in both areas. The MBA-IHM was born from a desire to bridge this gap with a dedicated training programme.
When Axel Hoffmann was charged with setting up and later managing the programme, it was new territory for him. Even today, the MBA-IHM is one-of-a-kind. Composed of 11 modules, the programme is comprehensive and unique. While there are MBA programmes focusing on healthcare, the MBA-IHM goes beyond these classic models by maintaining a global perspective and an interdisciplinary approach throughout. This means a strong focus on management positions at the meso and macro levels.
"Even today, the MBA in International Health Management is one-of-a-kind."
With one exception (the Practice-Oriented Project), the modules can be taken in any order and the form and content are adapted with each new edition. In form, because the lecturers alternate, in content, because the needs of the participants are taken into account and current topics are always incorporated into the courses.
A module does not mean one week of attendance, but consists of synchronous and asynchronous phases. Before the one-week face-to-face phase, the participants work their way into the topic with the help of targeted reading, videos and exercises. Through exchange forums on the Moodle learning platform, coordinators get to know the students in advance and assess which topics to prioritize and where to invest more time. "The programme is modified according to students’ needs each year," Barbara Bürkin explains. This involves a lot of flexibility from the lecturers.
The lecturers are not classic academics, but they also have practical experience in the field. "If we have course instructors who talk about a problem in southern Africa, then they have been there and know the reality on the ground," says Axel Hoffmann.
When the Covid-19 crisis unfolded, the organizing team and lecturers worked hard to transition the on-campus phases of most modules to an online format. Despite the increased workload, Bohlius, Bürkin and Hoffmann agree on the importance of offering courses even in challenging conditions. Indeed, some offerings were practically overrun during this time.
"A lot of students were just grateful to be able to do anything at all. We had students who were stranded in Colombia for 6 months, unable to leave," recalls Axel Hoffmann.
Hybrid teaching as a model for the future
After the first runs, adjustments were made in line with the "flipped classroom" concept: the synchronous online phase was shortened, and learning content could be prepared in advance in the form of video sequences. The electronic preparation of the material means an enormous amount of work for those responsible for the course and the lecturers, but the three are convinced that it is worth it. They can well imagine the concept as a model for the future.
As a substitute for physical meetings, a virtual event was organized last year. There was an overarching theme and a short input presentation, but the main point was to give students the opportunity to exchange ideas with each other and with alumni and lecturers. The response was so positive that a second meeting was held this year. The plan is to offer such informal meetings, called community events, on a quarterly basis. For the input presentations, the aim is to draw on the students' wealth of experience and specifically ask them to present a project from their own context, which Barbara Bürkin says is working very well.
These community events meet two needs at once: on the one hand, they serve as a substitute for the omitted coffee breaks, during which a lot of exchange is normally cultivated, and on the other hand, they are a quasi-counterpart to alumni meetings, which did not exist until now. Hardly surprising, considering that there have only been about 30 alumni since the launch of the MBA. The cohorts are small in each case, and not all students complete the entire programme, but depending on their career goals, perhaps only individual modules. Before these virtual reunions, there was nothing like them. The pandemic has changed the acceptance of such formats.
"Two years ago, the expectation probably would have been that an alumni event had to be face-to-face."
Training is essential, but it comes at a cost
The continuing education market is highly competitive. Non-Swiss participants also bear the additional burden of the high cost of living in Switzerland. Nevertheless, many professionals are drawn to the MBA-IHM, as Barbara Bürkin hears again and again from applicants or interested parties. "One big draw is the interconnectedness of the content - the research, which is extensive, the many research and implementation networks that factor into teaching, education and training and the practical application – another is the unique character of the institute, which is defined by this interplay."
All three are keen to develop and deploy fairer tuition funding models to enable access for people from low- and middle-income countries. Further expansion of hybrid teaching also serves this goal: "We believe this is an opportunity, not just financially, not just cross-culturally, but also in terms of equity of access to the degree," Hoffmann says.
"There is a huge incentive for many to graduate from this MBA."
The biggest challenge in the MBA-IHM is still the time and financial resources, the programme directors agree, "especially if you want to change something in teaching - the lecturers are all very busy, in research or in other projects," says Julia Bohlius, and the other two nod in agreement. Incorporating face-to-face teaching into a hybrid format that incorporates it with online instruction requires designing the entire course (also in terms of timing). It's an investment worth making, Bohlius says - you just have to have the resources.
This interview was published in the 2021/2022 issue of the magazine Advanced Studies of the University of Basel. Photos by Christian Flierl.