Translate business-speak into entrepreneurial ideas

David Matthews meets new ABS head Paul Marshall, who wants the business schools to find their voice

May 17, 2012

Despite a "crisis of capitalism", a UK economy back in recession and radical changes to university funding, the Association of Business Schools (ABS) has kept relatively quiet in recent years.

This is about to change, according to Paul Marshall, the association's new chief executive, who took the reins in January after six years as executive director of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities.

The ABS represents 117 institutions across the UK, including both private providers and schools in publicly funded universities. Nationally, business and administration subjects accounted for 12.6 per cent of undergraduate and 19.8 per cent of postgraduate enrolments in 2010-11.

At the same time as its members are tackling issues relating to curricula, value to students and internationalisation, broader questions about how to kick-start the UK economy are also drawing attention. In an interview with Times Higher Education, Mr Marshall asked: "Where has the voice of the business schools been over the big issues over the past three to four years?"

He noted that the ABS did not have relationships with Universities UK or the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

"That's not right, given the strength of the organisation," he said. "(The ABS should be) more active in terms of driving policy."

He wants the association to "almost act like a translation service" so that research from business schools can inform public policy debate.

To that end, the ABS has launched a series of round-table discussions, bringing together school deans, business figures and policymakers to debate issues, including the new higher education system and how business schools can contribute to the economy.

The first occurred on 30 March, where participants worried that business schools would be particularly badly hit by the government's target to reduce net immigration to the "tens of thousands" by 2015 because they accepted a disproportionate number of overseas students.

High on the agenda for future sessions will be the question of how ABS members can continue to attract students following the rise in the tuition fee cap to £9,000, particularly as many universities use income from business subjects to subsidise other courses that are more expensive to teach.

The early signs are that things could be worse: in the first year of higher fees, applicants to business and administration subjects fell by 5.7 per cent, compared with a total drop of 7 per cent.

However, Mr Marshall said that some respected schools could be in for "nasty shocks" when graduate employment and salary data are revealed in the new Key Information Sets this autumn.

He said students attending open days will be asking: "'I want to know what my graduate prospects are and what I'm actually paying (for).'"

Because of cross-subsidisation, "the relationship could get increasingly strained between the business school and university".

But the former should not necessarily respond by seeking greater autonomy, he said. Instead, universities require "crystal-clear" strategies for how business schools fit into their overall plans, and any cross-subsidisation "has to be transparent".

"It's not just about propping up a department here and there," he said.

Ready to start up?

Mr Marshall also argued that there is a "big debate on a fundamental level about undergraduate curricula" and whether business schools "are preparing people to ... go out into the world of work and be genuinely entrepreneurial".

"We have fallen into generating people who think they are going out to work in big corporates," he said.

He added that it was crucial that business schools were "not simply factories generating hundreds of thousands of students".

There are also "big issues" surrounding the future of the MBA, Mr Marshall said.

A joint survey by the ABS and higher education marketing firm CarringtonCrisp found that 28 per cent of prospective MBA students across the world would consider specialist master's courses instead.

"There is a real uncertainty in the MBA marketplace: students are questioning the returns available with costs ever increasing and doubts about jobs in the current economic climate," Mr Marshall said of the findings.

To make the programmes more relevant, MBA graduates could have the option to "come back and do a week-long top-up", he suggested.

A debate on how UK business schools internationalise (for example, by establishing campuses abroad) is also a priority.

In January, the ABS announced a partnership with the Association of Asia-Pacific Business Schools that will lead to joint research, events and publications. This should help ABS members better understand Asian markets, Mr Marshall said.

A similar venture was announced with the Arab Society of Faculties of Business, Economics and Political Sciences at the end of April.

Given that UK business schools are pushing hard into the Asia-Pacific market, he said, one "incredibly important" role of the ABS was to ensure that UK business schools teach students about Eastern models of capitalism.

"We can't have curricula that are dominated by Western views of business and finance," he said.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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