Business school tips on how universities can respond to populist criticism

The response from business schools to attacks on their relevance and academic offering could be useful to universities under siege, says Angus Laing 

August 19, 2018
Man helps fellow skater who has fallen on the ice
Source: Alamy

Criticism of universities today can feel all but ubiquitous. Whether in the UK, Australia or any number of other western countries, politicians and the media are lining up to assert that universities are failing the community they serve. They are over-privileged, underworked bastions of self-interest; they exploit students with high fees and poor teaching; they are inhabited by politically correct “snowflakes” and more, much more. Pretty robust stuff. 

One is reminded of Shakespeare’s Mark Antony: “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” Certainly, the “evil” of universities is currently attracting the attention. There are failings within university sectors around the world indisputably, but this prevailing populist view is lacking perspective and proportion. Academic research that transforms lives and economies is ignored. The development of experts and leaders is conveniently forgotten. The contribution from higher education – cultural and economic – to localities is swept under the carpet. 

What makes this one-sided perspective particularly galling is that the sector is then lectured to about how to “put its house in order” by the leaders of industries that have themselves had questionable performances. The case of an Australian vice-chancellor being advised by executives from the Australian automotive sector – yes, the sector that no longer exists – on how to improve efficiency is a particularly rich example. The real issue is less about asking how did we find ourselves in this particular impasse, but rather, how do we get out of it?

For business schools, this is all too familiar. Criticism of business schools has never been in short supply. As we’ve struggled to achieve academic respectability – “physics envy” and all that baggage – we’ve stoked the critique that we are out of touch with the business community.

Our research is “irrelevant”, and if not irrelevant then impenetrable. Our students “lack the skills required by business”. It’s not entirely unjustified criticism – but criticism that we have been acutely aware of and to which the sector has sought to respond. 

There are outstanding examples of the ways in which business schools have evolved their operations in response to trenchant criticism that could perhaps offer something to the wider sector in fighting back against the populist onslaught. 

There are three things that the sector needs to do. First, programmes need to be designed around student needs. Universities must recognise that the intellectual challenge and development offered by programmes needs to be anchored in the reality of the world that our students will graduate into and keep pace with any changes. We are not developing future academics in our disciplines – we are developing future leaders of diverse sectors. 

Next, the faculty must be diverse. Heterogeneity is often challenging, but it is a positive asset. Homogeneity may be comfortable, but it is limiting. The most successful business schools have unequivocally been at the forefront of creating communities of different types of faculty, from the traditional research-oriented faculty to pedagogical specialists and “professors of practice”. This heterogeneous mix has enabled business schools to not only deliver intellectual rigour and practical relevance, but also design effective educational and organisational interventions.

Finally, universities need to make effective partnerships with external organisations – public and private – to develop interventions that make a difference to society. This will keep them engaged and relevant. Business schools and universities have distinctive and specialist skill sets that underpin their core competency and contribution to society. This is their strength. But, to succeed as civic actors, there is a need for broader sets of skills, which for many universities are not part of their core competency. Partnerships with third parties may be challenging to manage, not least in terms of cultural differences, but they offer a route to extending the skill set in a resource-constrained environment.

The underlying challenge in confronting this criticism is to be able to meet the expectations society holds of a civic institution, while maintaining the distance and objectivity required to prompt change for the long-term benefit of society. The robust criticism of business schools for becoming handmaidens of business has genuine validity, and as leaders of business schools and universities we need to safeguard against the capture of our institutions by particular interest groups.

More than ever, universities need to engage deeply with the communities that they are part of and embrace the challenge of reaching out to constituencies that they have no natural affinity with. As business schools have needed to take their case to business, a process that has not always been comfortable, universities need to take their case to society. 

Angus Laing is dean of Lancaster University Management School.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Reader's comments (3)

Interesting piece, though it says nothing about the sort of criticism aimed at Business Schools for teaching pro-growth capitalism. If we want teaching and research that is genuinely concerned with carbon emissions, social inequality and social justice, then the Business Schools we have right now are not fit for purpose.
Thanks to Prof Laing for putting his ideas out for discussion. B schools are indeed stress-testing their institutional ability to respond to criticism. And he argues that we ought refocus on student needs, heterogeneity of faculty (expertise, perspective, background), and build partnerships). Maybe some lessons for universities from the b-school experiences. But let's pause for a minute: Now, as ever, the insights of Phil Selznick and generations of observers since are useful: The work of administration and leading involves working 'across' boundaries and engaging plural stakeholders. Prof Laing's analysis accepts too much the premise that bschools are simply vocational accelerators. Today, more than ever, we are also tasked to educate and inspire a new generation of business leaders (and others) who see beyond 'today' and have the capacity, discipline, and aspiration to experiment to invent 'tomorrows' that address now urgent challenges for early 21s c capitalism , for changing global world, for new forms of organization and impact, all this in a world transformed in real time by changing ecosystems and rising levels of inequality. Laing's 3 points get us started on this task, but only barely. As Gibson said 'future is already here, it is unevenly distributed'. B schools will want to play a role in assembling options and futures. In this way Laing's call for diversity in faculty and others and in fresh kinds of partnerships are key points.
beys1g visit

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments