Business schools at risk of ‘operating in a vacuum’

The skills gap in the digital sector can be filled by collaborating with industry, John Elmes hears

September 13, 2016
Female model vacuum-sealed during Paris Fashion Week
Source: Reuters
Suck it and see: it’s a healthy exercise to ask questions about value and relevance

Business schools should collaborate regularly with industry to ensure that what they are teaching is relevant to current business trends or they will end up “operating in a vacuum”, a business school dean has claimed.

Tim Nichol, dean of Liverpool John Moores University’s business school, said that the best business education is done in collaboration with companies and that schools can exploit developments in the job sector to help fill skills gaps.

Mr Nichol spoke to Times Higher Education ahead of his appearance on a panel discussing “What’s wrong with business education?” at the 2016 European Association for International Education conference in Liverpool.

He cited the increasing influence of digital technology on “traditional and non-traditional” businesses as an area in which business schools could play a leading role.

“It’s the way we keep up with not only a fast-moving sector, but also a sector that is [embracing digital],” he said.

“The digital sector is pretty important to the growth of the local economy and therefore, [given this] question of the relevance and impact of the business school, is an area we need to have a significant part of.

“The skills gap in the digital sector is only going to be [filled] through collaboration.”

He added that business schools could work alongside computing and art schools in universities to provide technical background and to create curricula that can cover the gaps that have been identified by industry.

“That’s a challenge for us, but a very interesting and exciting one. You can only do that via collaboration with industry, otherwise you’ll constantly be operating in a vacuum,” he said.

However, Mr Nichol added that business education was not necessarily “broken and need[ing] to be fixed”, just that school deans and senior managers needed “constant reflection”.

Tim Mescon, senior vice-president and chief officer for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for accreditation body the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (ACSB International), believes that global business schools are “very responsive” to market trends but that it is “healthy” to be questioned from time to time about their relevance.

“[We talk of] public trust in academia; it’s a great example that business schools and universities are always being challenged from different sectors,” Dr Mescon told THE. “It’s a very healthy exercise to keep asking questions about value, relevance and impact.

“Employers continue to ask and challenge business schools on both the relevance of certain courses and the application of what’s being taught to the world of practice.”

Dr Mescon said that schools should “honour and respect” the wider academic mission of the university, but should “try and keep a foot planted” in scholarship and employment.

“We’re part of the academic tradition, but we also have to understand that our long-term value is meeting the needs of the marketplace.”

Mr Nichol agreed, saying that having “broad enough curricula” allows “exposure to the kind of issues” going on in the business world that will “inform good governance”.

Leave the silo: ‘faculty must change their mentality’

Business schools’ academic faculty must embrace interdisciplinarity and move away from working “in the solitude” of their own subject, according to the head of a business-focused university.

Irina Sennikova, rector of RISEBA University of Business, Arts and Technology in Latvia, said that business schools, and more specifically academics, were sometimes guilty of isolating themselves in their teaching.

But speaking to Times Higher Education ahead of her appearance on a panel discussion on “What’s wrong with business education?” at the 2016 EAIE Conference, Dr Sennikova said that the labour market was becoming “more and more interdisciplinary”, and so business schools must move away from such a “functional approach”.

“Business schools still provide silo teaching, giving functional knowledge rather than a comprehensive overview of the business [world],” she said.

“We’re still teaching finance, marketing, accounting whereas all the employers are now saying we need creativity, innovation.

“Multidisciplinary teaching is the key. Starting with the faculty, [who must change] their mentality.”

She said that in a field such as architecture, for example, students might have two professors from different areas debating issues, looking at designs from different perspectives.

“Why not do it in business disciplines? Doing interdisciplinary research is important, but [so is] bringing the results of interdisciplinary research into the classroom: taking…different disciplines, working together and integrating this into curriculum. Business schools aren’t doing this as much,” she said.

Dr Sennikova added, however, that schools require input from businesses, and that often they are “begging” industry for support to help them adapt.

“There’s lots of criticism from businesses that business schools don’t provide relevant know-ledge,” she said. “But in this respect, they should be stepping forward to business schools and providing them with the platform.”

Tim Nichol, Tim Mescon and Irina Sennikova are all due to speak in the session “What’s wrong with business education?” at 11.30am on 14 September (Room 3A, Level 1, ACC).

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