So what is the core business of a business school?
It has long been accepted that business schools are not like other academic units. This is often reflected in somewhat different organisational structures, and sometimes in different working conditions, funding mechanisms, institutional linkages and so forth. Business schools typically have larger numbers of postgraduate taught students, and few research students. Undergraduate students have a highly vocational outlook on what they are doing, and postgraduates mostly take courses as a direct way of moving up the corporate ladder.
Many business schools have been slow to develop a major research profile; and now one of the questions raised is whether they should be bothering with research at all. English Universities Minister David Willetts is reported in the Financial Times to have suggested that ‘Britain’s business schools should offer more practical help to companies and spend less time on academic research.’ Indeed he declared that where business schools are focusing on research they may be ‘damaging their performance’, not least because in his view research was often being published in ‘obtuse [sic] American academic business journals’ (did he mean ‘obscure’?).
Whether he is right or not will depend to a large extent on how we see business schools. If we see them as industry training organisations, he may be right. But in that case we would probably need academic ‘management’ departments or the like, a distinction which does in fact exist in some universities. On the other hand, if we believe that business schools have their greatest value when they engage in knowledge transfer of both professional best practice and relevant scholarship, then what he is saying is much less sensible. It will be important for universities and their business schools to engage with this topic explicitly. The Minister’s statement should not be left hanging in the air.