Blunkett: business schools could have tried to fix test and trace

Former education secretary says business schools must work harder to demonstrate their relevance

November 10, 2020
Aerial view of a Welsh COVID testing centre
Source: iStock

Former education secretary Lord Blunkett has said UK business schools need to work harder to demonstrate their relevance if they want to survive the effects of the pandemic and Brexit.

Lord Blunkett, who is also professor of politics in practice at the University of Sheffield and chair of the board of the University of Law, suggested that business schools could have worked more closely with medical schools to tackle the impact of Covid-19, for example, by working to improve test and trace at a local level.

The peer told the Chartered Association of Business School’s annual conference that business schools, largely because of their reliance on international recruitment, had been hit particularly badly by both issues but would be “absolutely paramount” to the economic recovery from the pandemic.

“That is the challenge for business schools. I see some of them raising their game to it, but see others just ticking along, struggling,” he said.

“Why was it that universities with medical faculties didn’t join forces at the very beginning with their business school to reshape what the university could offer, including test and trace at local level irrespective of what our governments were actually doing?”

Lord Blunkett, who held a series of senior Cabinet posts under prime minister Tony Blair between 1997 and 2005, including four years as education secretary, explained that business schools needed to work with local industry as part of their roles as anchor institutions in the community. They should use their local experience to demonstrate what can be done at a national level, he said.

Business schools would be crucial for “thinking about the lessons we’ve learned from Covid, the way that distribution has been developed, the way that we’ve reshaped some of the things we do, in hospitality, for example, and new models of delivery, and then scaled up so all aspects of our economy can benefit from that creativity”, he said.

This posed a challenge for parent institutions as well, and was an issue that universities and vice-chancellors would have to take on very strongly, Lord Blunkett said. “Are universities using their business school to inform how they reshape the model of what [universities] are doing more broadly?” he asked.

The problem was that the current government had shown a fair bit of ambivalence to university education and was often “quite contradictory about business schools”, Lord Blunkett explained.

Business schools must have “a much clearer voice…to get people in positions of authority – like I used to be – to recognise the crucial contributions [from business schools] to be made that will make or break to how we deal with [the economic fallout of the pandemic] in the future”, he said.

UK business schools also needed to show their value to the wider world, he added. “People have to see the relevance of the UK in terms of wanting to be here to teach, to be here to research and wanting to be here as students,” he said. If business schools can tackle that challenge, it would help to prevent the potential disaster to the sector from Covid-19 and Brexit, Lord Blunkett said.

“The challenge for business schools and their community is to ensure that people do understand the relevance of the United Kingdom, to innovate, to be creative, to be able to take on the challenges that Covid-19 has thrown up in spades,” he said.

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