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.

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9 Comments on “So what is the core business of a business school?”

  1. Fred Says:

    Ok, I am pretty sure that this person is out of university reality. It is true that business scholls are a quite special case and that some of them are focusing more on teaching and the connections with industry rather than research but research is important. Especially for some parts of the business schools such as the divisions of finance and management. Yes top academic journals in this field are American but what is the point in that? Stop researching or let the students and staff who want to research to go to US? After all we need graduates who can be also the next leaders not only employees in business or not Mr Willets?

  2. Ian Johnson Says:

    If Business Schools (and any other vocational/professional Schools) do not do research, how could anyone be sure that their teaching is keeping abreast of the leading edge of the practitioner environment, let alone contributing to the development of it?

  3. jfryar Says:

    Of course ministers would like to reduce academic research in business schools. Just look at the thorn Prof. Morgan Kelly has been in their side … 🙂

  4. Plammy24 Says:

    Interestingly in Aberdeen there are high profile voices calling for Universities, not just business schools, to be far more ‘accountable’ in industry. Needless to say these voices are from local industry but I often wander whether they realise just how ‘accountable’ Universities already are? If we fail to provide the high quality graduates ‘industry’ requires then we will suffer – surely that’s a fairly high level of accountability already.

  5. kevin denny Says:

    jfryer: Morgan Kelly is in the UCD School of Economics (as am I) which is not part of a business school. It is in the College of Human Sciences.
    I think we need to start with the question: what is the purpose of business schools? My understanding is that it is basically to train people to be business men/women. And their business is to make money. So a business school that cannot make money cannot be very good: people will pay money if it helps them make money.
    So business schools, as with type-writing or hair-dressing schools, should be private. The government can deal with access issues by means-tested grants.
    While this may seem extreme, the top business schools, where they are in universities, are often de facto independent. If the “real” university can screw some money out of them, fine: it certainly should not cross-subsidize it.

    • jfryar Says:

      Kevin, you are of course correct. But the point is that academics should be free to criticise the policies of government. If, as David Willetts suggests, academics in business schools (or whatever school or faculty title one cares to substitute) should not focus on research, then they’re effectively corporate consultants. Which, to me, kind of defeats the purpose of having academics rather than consultants.

  6. The notion that business schools should not do research and instead offer practical help to businesses is problematic on a number of fronts. First, the strong evidence is that there is a positive correlation between the quality of research conducted in B-schools and the quality of their teaching. For instance, one can compare B-school rankings with research assessment exercise results. Second, if a B-school decides not to do research they will be unlikely to attract high quality staff (or students). Third, business scholars cannot simply take business knowledge and inject it into practice, because of the reflexive nature of social knowledge (i.e. the output of business research partly constitutes the phenomenon of study – organisational life – which is quite unlike knowledge of the natural world). Fourth, business is in many ways a competitive game between players so there is an ethical issue for B-schools who want to help companies (which companies should be helped and which should not be helped and how should this choice be made?). And if business schools are expected to operate as consultancy firms, should we not also expect, say, engineering departments in universities to do likewise. By the way, if one accepted Kevin Denny’s point that business schools, “like type-writing and hair-dressing schools”, should be private then one should also move all vocational schools out of the university, including engineering, medicine, law, etc.
    Fifth, because business is so important, pervasive and implicated in the distribution of wealth and power, it warrants independent study (not just research on behalf of some vested interests). So B-school researchers are typically students *of* business rather than *for* business. And because social life is more complex than physical phenomena (only God knows why he gave the easy problems to the physicists) this research is hard to do, and requires time, talent and resources.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Traditionally a lot of vocational schools were outside of university, medical schools were hospital based for example. The RCSI is not a university. And you can’t qualify as a lawyer in Ireland by going to university.
      The question is: why do business schools exist? If they are to train business men/women then perhaps they can be privatized. Some business schools produce great research, certainly in economics, but I am not sure how typical that it.
      A business school that didn’t do research would not attract serious scholars (by definition) but would it be less succesful in producing business people? Clearly a lot of business schools think not.

  7. It’s worth separating out the public-private issue from the issue of whether an activity should be part of the university or not. Many universities are private as are many business schools.

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