'Universities are selling things to people - they are businesses'

Aston business school dean prizes feedback from alumni and employers as institutions begin to work like corporations

January 8, 2015

Source: Alamy

Clear-eyed: Universities are businesses without shareholders, says George Feiger

“It’s not sort of a business; it’s literally a business.” That is the view of higher education taken by George Feiger, executive dean of Aston Business School.

Austrian-born Professor Feiger, appointed at the school in June 2013, has an unusual background for academia: he is a former senior partner at management consultancy McKinsey & Company, a former global head of investment banking for SBC Warburg and a former global head of onshore private banking at UBS. Prior to all that, he was a lecturer in economics at Harvard University, after taking his PhD there, and an associate professor in finance at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

His view on universities as businesses will be provocative to some. But Professor Feiger sees his finance background as suiting him to the role of leading the school.

“We see the business school as an economic engine,” he said. “An engine of opportunity for students and an engine of opportunity for the region. And in that sense, my background doesn’t sound so odd, does it?”

Aston Business School has almost 3,000 undergraduates, nearly 2,000 postgraduates, about 150 academic staff and 90 administrative staff. Professor Feiger says one of the school’s – and Aston’s – “great glories” is its record on employability and refers to Aston’s “exemplary” ability to “propel people in new opportunities”. The school also has the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses programme, which provides business and management education for small business leaders.

To Professor Feiger’s knowledge, he is the only business school dean in the UK “who didn’t move through an academic path”. But given that British universities were now having to “adapt to the marketisation of education” with fee income following students, he said his background was valuable.

“If the university doesn’t attract and retain students, it doesn’t get any money,” he said. “This is called a business where I come from: you’re selling things to people. It’s neither more or less than that.

“Universities were not used to doing this. Universities have not traditionally seen themselves literally as businesses. And that’s what this is: it’s literally a business, yes? It’s not sort of a business, it’s literally a business.”

But almost all British universities are charities. Does that not signal that there are some important distinctions between universities and businesses?

Professor Feiger replied that while universities are “all charities legally” they “have to operate to bring in revenue and control costs. They operate as a business, it’s just that they don’t have shareholders. Think of it as a mutual.”

And “because the whole university has to start operating like a business, it’s very useful to have people with business experience around”, he added.

He said that before he arrived at Aston, “a lot of authority and responsibility was vested in the dean”, whereas now there is “a more formal and collegial management process which is essentially the same as you would have at any professional services firm – a very large and complex professional services firm”.

He accepted that there were “tensions” in the idea of higher education as a business as it “doesn’t lend itself as easily to commercialisation as does the making of soup or tin plates” and there are “issues of quality and integrity that have to be maintained”.

But Professor Feiger said the key was to find out what employers think of graduates and what alumni think about their education, with the aim being to “inform the basis of our decision-making with information that…is given by the ultimate users of what we provide”.

On the wider experience of the university environment, Professor Feiger said: “It has proven in some ways a bit more traditional than anything I’ve seen before.”

On potential future changes, he said: “If you move to an educational model which gives the students more face-to-face time with the teachers because a lot of the other activity – what I would call transmission of straightforward information – is done online and in other ways, then you can cut out a lot of the intermediary stuff, a lot of the paperwork, get people to interact much more in a digital fashion. They [students] get a better learning outcome and…everything moves faster and there’s no paper.”

After what must have been high-paid jobs in banking, has Professor Feiger had to take a pay cut?

“It’s not a subject I’m going to discuss,” he replied. “But I find it enormously satisfying to be around interesting, intelligent people. Universities are wonderful places. You run into people who know all sorts of things that are extraordinary and you can talk to them about it.”

john.morgan@tesglobal.com

In numbers

3,000 - the number of undergraduates studying at Aston Business School

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