Days are numbered for ruthless go-getters in a post-meltdown world

Universities should learn from other cultures to inculcate respect and prudence, which companies will soon demand, argues Peter Brady

November 5, 2009

Sir Fred Goodwin caused the global financial crisis, or was it Gordon Brown, or the financial regulators, or the City? Why not blame everyone with blue eyes and fair skin?

That is the problem with a blame culture; it grows and grows.

So it should be no surprise that the media, in America at least, are blaming the global economic crisis on universities - or business schools to be exact. On television network ABC, the argument was made that the style of business teaching as advocated by Harvard Business School and its imitators has to take some of the credit for the meltdown of so many large companies.

The line of thought was that the confrontational style of teaching, with students scoring points off one another, creates a winner-takes-all environment. In addition, students are taught to argue with the experts - their teachers - creating a culture where experience is undervalued. And since an MBA from Harvard guarantees that you can enter the job market at the top of the management ladder, organisations have evolved where the leaders have no understanding of, or even skills in, the core business of the organisation, whether it is banking or manufacturing widgets.

In organisations managed by such people, the dividend for the shareholder is the measure of success, along with the massive bonuses paid to these professional managers.

In contrast, the nurturing of trainee managers, who work their way up from the shop floor while learning the skills of the business and at the same time learning how to manage people, was presented by ABC as a far better form of management education - one that creates management teams that do not have the shareholders as gods.

On the whole, it is a rather simplistic view that may not stand up to close examination. But it does raise some questions for higher education: in particular, whether our academic culture has negative aspects, as well as the positives that we are keen to publicise to the world, and whether other cultures have elements that we can learn from.

We are justifiably proud of the UK system, which is student-centred and produces creative graduates. Its evolution over the centuries has not been in a vacuum - we have taken many ideas from others. However, there is a feeling that, while we can learn from other developed countries, the rest of the world is too far behind to teach us anything. And it is only a matter of time before they adapt their systems to be more like ours.

Practitioners in the UK view the higher education systems in countries such as India and China as old fashioned, overly reliant on rote learning and repetition, and dismiss their value. Pedagogists concentrate their efforts on helping graduates from these education systems adapt to our academic culture.

Our new students fresh from China and India are taught that, contrary to what they had always believed, the teacher does not know all, and they should question and debate with them.

The years that these students have spent in a highly competitive academic environment, prior to coming to the UK, are seen as a breeding ground for bad habits: at a western university they can learn in a modern environment, in a manner that will make them creative members of society.

But is creativity at the expense of other attributes what society and industry wants or needs at this time? Do we actually want creative managers/bankers running our businesses? Or are they like creative accountants and politicians - the sort of people that you would not trust to manage their own expenses, let alone a multinational company or country?

It is accepted that graduates need an international education to be able to work in multinational companies. But given the deep effect of the global recession and the lessons companies will have to learn from it, multinational companies will undoubtedly change very rapidly in outlook and practice. They should now be looking for a different type of graduate, one with a more balanced mixture of prudence, respect and creativity.

The UK has the highest percentage of international students on campus. This puts us in a position to be able to deliver such graduates, but only if we appreciate the diversity and embrace the different ways of thinking and experiences that our overseas students bring to the classroom.

This is no easy task and will require an open mind and creative approach to programme design. But, after all, that is what education should be all about.

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