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Shut down business schools? Two professors debate

Martin Parker, University of Bristol, Ken Starkey, University of Nottingham

After 20 years of working in UK business schools, Martin Parker, professor of organisation studies at Bristol University, calls for them to be shut down in a new book. His views have caused some lively debate and here, he makes his case. Ken Starkey, professor of management at Nottingham University, disagrees. He offers an alternative.

Martin Parker:

One of the features of today’s universities is just how much money they now spend on marketing. Websites are slick and use contemporary typefaces, billboards show laughing diverse customers, and strap lines promise success. “Achieve your dreams!” “Find the real you!” “The knowledge to succeed!” Apart from the word “university”, it’s hard to tell whether they are selling mobile phones, a yoga retreat, or a degree.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the publicity for business schools – perhaps the most marketised part of the contemporary university and now teaching one in seven higher education students in the UK. The prospective customer is addressed as someone who is wide-eyed and grasping for the stars, is sold high salaries, brand name employers and images of people walking with determination.

As any marketing professional would tell you, you want to get the punters imagining who they will be if they have your product. It’s a lifestyle thing.

The problem is that the lifestyle being sold by most universities, much of the time, is a fiction. There are too many graduates chasing too few graduate jobs, and plenty of Deliveroo cyclists with master’s degrees. But then universities don’t want to advertise graduates stuck in damp flats paying off debt, always imagining that they could have been somebody. Realism isn’t what we are after here because that won’t pay the university’s bills.

The kind of picture you’d get in a business school brochure. shutterstock.com

As if these promises weren’t bad enough, the marketing of the business school has some even more damaging consequences. It sells thrilling careers in high finance, global logistics and marketing. Lots of jumping on planes and making customers happy, computer screens showing shares on the rise and smiling people sitting in front of laptops.

See anything wrong with this picture? There is virtually no consideration of the damage that business is doing to us and the planet.


‘The hidden curriculum of the business school remains any form of business that isn’t the capitalist corporation’


In the 1960s, sociologists of education used to talk about the idea of the “hidden curriculum”. Because schools didn’t teach about women, people of colour, working class experience, they effectively sent the message that it was only white middle-class men’s knowledge that really mattered. What they didn’t teach was a lesson too. That’s changed now, but the hidden curriculum of the business school remains any form of business that isn’t the capitalist corporation.

That’s why, in my new book Shut Down the Business School I suggest that business schools are teaching politics without admitting it. They rarely engage with the challenges of a low-carbon economy, of the shorter supply chains that we need to encourage localisation, and the need to address social justice and inclusion.

Business schools don’t teach about co-operatives, mutuals, local money, community shares or social enterprise. They don’t mention transition towns, intentional communities, recuperated factories, works councils or the social economy. Ideas about degrowth, the beauty of small, worker decision making and the circular economy are absent. It’s as if there is no alternative. And because of all this, we should recognise that their time has come.

Ken Starkey:

Let’s imagine a world without business schools. What would we do without the hundreds of thousands of MBAs who have graduated from business schools and gone to work on Wall Street, in the City, in management consulting, in business and in the public sector? Where would we be without the managerial knowledge they have absorbed based on cutting edge faculty research? Where would the world be without the two US presidents educated in the world’s leading business schools, George W Bush (Harvard) and Donald J Trump (Wharton)?

The Chartered Association of Business Schools would argue that business schools have had made significant contributions to local and national economies. Business schools produced many interesting impact case studies for the last REF review of university research, which support this point and many focused on policy issues.


‘Business and finance are crucial to a healthy economy and society’


Business schools also work at a local level to good effect. Their researchers work on the big social issues – environmental, social justice, social enterprise, eradicating slavery in supply chains, developing work opportunities for refugees – not as many as Martin and I would like perhaps, but more than he is making out.

Around 25% of postgraduates in UK universities are studying business and management. Where would be without all these budding entrepreneurs energised to create the companies of the future? Where would all those sociologists and geographers and refugees from other disciplines employed in business schools to teach business and management students find work?

Rather than recommending the demise of the business school we need to accept that business and finance are crucial to a healthy economy and society.

Ken Starkey: Business schools help foster a healthy economy. shutterstock.com

I agree with Martin that there is a pressing need to consider alternatives to the current dominant business philosophy, a hangover from looking to the US as the fount of management knowledge and the power of US corporations. We desperately need new models of business, society and business schools.

The major barrier to change, though, in the UK at least, is the disingenuous (some would say cynical) use made of business schools by universities over the last 20 years. In response to the financial pressures on the system many universities have developed the knee-jerk reaction of turning to the business school for income. Too many business schools are little more than cash cows, with international students desperately recruited to fill funding gaps.

The problem with this strategy is that it is unlikely to be sustainable. In many business schools international students number more than 80% (even 90% in some cases) of postgraduate entry, with students from China making up the large majority of this number in a growing number of institutions.

While I agree with some of Martin’s criticisms, the answer is not to close business schools but for business school deans and university management to engage in a real dialogue about the kind of business schools the world needs. This requires an overhaul of both business school curricula and university recruitment policies.

Martin Parker:

I assume that Ken’s argument is, in part, ironic. The fact that business school graduates go to work in high finance, management consulting and become dubious US presidents is hardly grounds for celebration. Neither is that lots of students study business degrees, or that armies of staff are employed to teach them. The bloated nature of global business school education is no grounds for its continuation.


‘Business schools need to begin again, which justifies talk of bulldozers’


I have no problem with the assertion that business and finance matter, the question is just how they should be organised. Ken mentions the importance of “alternatives”, and I assume this means that he would also be keen on the development of teaching and research that addresses carbon emissions through localisation and degrowth, which addresses inequalities of income and wealth, and encourages democratic workplaces that treat employees with dignity.

Martin Parker: talk of bulldozers is justified. shutterstock.com

Now, in order for this to happen, business schools need to stop teaching most of the standard curriculum. This isn’t minor tinkering, it’s a radical change in the way that they imagine themselves. It won’t be enough to introduce a business ethics course, or sign up for the UN Principles for Responsible Management Education. Business schools need to begin again, which seems to me to justify talk of bulldozers.

Ken Starkey:

While I accept that we need to radically reform the curriculum, I remain convinced that the business school has a key role to play in today’s university. Business schools are too often dismissed, except in financial terms, as little more than mass production teaching factories.


‘Business schools have a key role to play in today’s university’


The problem is that universities have used and abused business schools as an easy source of income, while collectively failing to articulate a convincing narrative of higher education for the 21st century. The rising pressure bearing down on universities is only likely to be exacerbated when for-profits, with the support of Ayn Rand admirers, enter the sector and target the lucrative business school “market”, competing on value-for-money with strong financial and possibly corporate backing.

University leaders need to articulate a more convincing narrative of what universities, including business schools, can offer. This must be based on more than a simplistic economic argument. It needs to reaffirm the core purpose and competence of a university: deep scholarship that allows us to understand better the complex social and economic challenges we face and to educate our students more effectively to resolve them.

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The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

University of Bristol and University of Nottingham provide funding as founding partners of The Conversation UK.