Business school tips on how universities can respond to populist criticism


Criticism of universities today can feel all but ubiquitous. Whether in the UK, Australia or any number of other western countries, politicians and the media are lining up to assert that universities are failing the community they serve. They are over-privileged, underworked bastions of self-interest; they exploit students with high fees and poor teaching; they are inhabited by politically correct “snowflakes” and more, much more. Pretty robust stuff.

One is reminded of Shakespeare’s Mark Antony: “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.” Certainly, the “evil” of universities is currently attracting the attention. There are failings within university sectors around the world indisputably, but this prevailing populist view is lacking perspective and proportion. Academic research that transforms lives and economies is ignored. The development of experts and leaders is conveniently forgotten. The contribution from higher education – cultural and economic – to localities is swept under the carpet.

What makes this one-sided perspective particularly galling is that the sector is then lectured to about how to “put its house in order” by the leaders of industries that have themselves had questionable performances. The case of an Australian vice-chancellor being advised by executives from the Australian automotive sector – yes, the sector that no longer exists – on how to improve efficiency is a particularly rich example. The real issue is less about asking how did we find ourselves in this particular impasse, but rather, how do we get out of it?

For business schools, this is all too familiar. Criticism of business schools has never been in short supply. As we’ve struggled to achieve academic respectability – “physics envy” and all that baggage – we’ve stoked the critique that we are out of touch with the business community.

Our research is “irrelevant”, and if not irrelevant then impenetrable. Our students “lack the skills required by business”. It’s not entirely unjustified criticism – but criticism that we have been acutely aware of and to which the sector has sought to respond.

There are outstanding examples of the ways in which business schools have evolved their operations in response to trenchant criticism that could perhaps offer something to the wider sector in fighting back against the populist onslaught.

There are three things that the sector needs to do. First, programmes need to be designed around student needs. Universities must recognise that the intellectual challenge and development offered by programmes needs to be anchored in the reality of the world that our students will graduate into and keep pace with any changes. We are not developing future academics in our disciplines – we are developing future leaders of diverse sectors.

Next, the faculty must be diverse. Heterogeneity is often challenging, but it is a positive asset. Homogeneity may be comfortable, but it is limiting. The most successful business schools have unequivocally been at the forefront of creating communities of different types of faculty, from the traditional research-oriented faculty to pedagogical specialists and “professors of practice”. This heterogeneous mix has enabled business schools to not only deliver intellectual rigour and practical relevance, but also design effective educational and organisational interventions.

Finally, universities need to make effective partnerships with external organisations – public and private – to develop interventions that make a difference to society. This will keep them engaged and relevant. Business schools and universities have distinctive and specialist skill sets that underpin their core competency and contribution to society. This is their strength. But, to succeed as civic actors, there is a need for broader sets of skills, which for many universities are not part of their core competency. Partnerships with third parties may be challenging to manage, not least in terms of cultural differences, but they offer a route to extending the skill set in a resource-constrained environment.

The underlying challenge in confronting this criticism is to be able to meet the expectations society holds of a civic institution, while maintaining the distance and objectivity required to prompt change for the long-term benefit of society. The robust criticism of business schools for becoming handmaidens of business has genuine validity, and as leaders of business schools and universities we need to safeguard against the capture of our institutions by particular interest groups.

More than ever, universities need to engage deeply with the communities that they are part of and embrace the challenge of reaching out to constituencies that they have no natural affinity with. As business schools have needed to take their case to business, a process that has not always been comfortable, universities need to take their case to society.

Author Bio: Angus Laing is Dean of Lancaster University Management School.