Business schools must dig in and help rebuild local economies


From virologists seeking a vaccine and engineers creating ventilators in record time to student nurses on the NHS frontline, the coronavirus crisis has shown the very best of what UK higher education can offer. Now it is the turn of business schools to prove their value.

With the world entering the deepest recession in living memory and millions more job cuts predicted, business schools must find ways to make themselves an essential part of kickstarting local economies. They can’t afford to be a luxury option.

This will mean getting hands-on with small businesses while also equipping students with entrepreneurial skills and experience to start their own companies. In short, business schools will need to lead when demonstrating what makes for a genuinely civic university.

Their immediate challenge will be helping the business world adapt to short-term conditions but the greater task is perhaps how firms become more resilient for the longer term. Business schools, in principle at least, should be the place for making changes happen, for rethinking the rules, radical innovation, new collaborations and cooperation.

Difficult conversations will need to happen and business schools must be part of them. Companies will need to explore all the vulnerabilities that have been exposed by the global pandemic in what is a relatively safe environment: the length and complexity of their supply chains and the benefits from nearshoring, smaller, localised sources of resources and manufacture; and the potential for finding more partners locally.

Consequently, business schools need to start offering new curricula and courses rooted in the practical essentials needed for emerging from lockdown and finding a new kind of “success” based on adaptability and long-term resilience – perhaps even a stronger sense of responsibility to the society they are a part of. After all, the furlough and loan schemes provided by society have provided them with a level of protection to ensure many are still standing. A leap away from corporate social responsibility to something more like an integrated social responsibility is required.

These new challenges will include helping human resources to find a variety of arrangements to keep staff working and engaged and motivated through what promises to be a major period of unsettling change. Schools will also need to define and promote a culture of leadership and management that is compassionate, in tune with what is likely to be a different kind of business culture, but also a leadership that is equipped with the vision to deliver a strategy for business continuity, recovery and adaptability.

There will also need to be more financial management for maintaining operations with interrupted cash flow and training over the issues faced by staff more likely to be working remotely. In marketing, academics will need to understand a new corporate perspective when it comes to spending priorities, wants and needs.

For the past 30 years or more, business schools have been drawn to the possibilities of global markets and opportunities. Now we suddenly have to go into reverse: recruitment, research, company partnerships, need to be founded on an understanding of local contexts and local characteristics and qualities, including all their limitations as well as opportunities.

They will likewise need to become local organisations that tap into the local ecology of needs, supply chains and resources. What was increasingly becoming a homogenised international culture for management and doing business will be replaced by a new bloom of local experiments enacted through trial and error.

Perhaps the most positive legacy of lockdown will be in how universities as a whole have opened up, broken out of their business-as-usual roles, challenged traditional conservatism and engaged with communities. They have provided volunteers, made premises and facilities available for the NHS and key workers and for operating food banks for their students and community.

That kind of unfussy cooperation and commitment to wider social good needs to become the norm as universities reconnect with their constituencies.

A community role includes working with more non-traditional students, all ages and backgrounds, so that they are making and supporting the new wealth creators – not only feeding graduates to the large established employers. That means no more conveyor belts of corporate-ready graduates but generations of people with the necessary resilience and range of talents in themselves to be part of the adventure ahead.

Author Bio: Zahir Irani is Pro Vice-Chancellor (academic, innovation and quality) at the University of Bradford.