The Quiet Revolution in Teaching Business

Students from the Otto Beisheim School of Management listen to a lecture in Vallendar, Germany on October 19, 2007. Business will only benefit from greater inclusion of minority groups. Thomas Frey/imageBROKER/Alamy

If you ask most people what goes on in business schools, they would probably assume that a bunch of pointy heads tell other pointy heads how to read spreadsheets. Push a bit further, and you might get some stories about foreign students, shiny buildings and courses that teach people how to be bastards and make lots of money.

The financial crisis has often been blamed on business schools too for the ways that they spread the gospel of selfishness. But an odd thing is happening beneath the glass atrium—the academics are rebelling.

All around the world, the business school is now the fastest-growing part of higher education. In many countries, particularly the U.K., its expanding revenues are compensating for a decline in state funding and ensuring that the history department stays open.

In 2011, there were more than 360,000 students studying business and management in the U.K., the most popular subject by far. This growth has also meant that there are a lot of business and management academics to teach them, 14,305 in 2013.

Growth of the Fringe

Since the subject has grown so fast over the past 20 years, a lot of new academic jobs have been created. Some are filled by people with business school Ph.D.s, but many have been recruited from other similar disciplines—such as economics, psychology and sociology. Others have even come from further afield such as philosophy, cultural studies and history.

And that's where the trouble has started—because many of these new recruits have brought some very different assumptions with them. So over the past few years we have seen the growth of the business school's very own fringe—"critical management studies."

It is certainly true that most business schools, in pursuit of marketing products that will sell, have become apologists for the most extreme forms of neoliberal ideology. Management and markets are assumed to be progressive forces, and trade unions and the state are presented as problems to be overcome.

Courses on finance still sell best, with their implicit promise of well-paid jobs in expensive cities, and the general tone of the marketing for the elite schools is always "study with us and you will become powerful and wealthy."

So it might seem odd, but a large number of business school academics in Northwestern Europe are now deeply skeptical about the values and purposes of management education and are becoming more confident in saying so.

This month there was a large conference held in the U.K. on the subject. There are even critical textbooks and journals, as well as some schools that claim being critical as their unique selling proposition. So what might a world look like that didn't just parrot the kind of managerialism you see on display on airport book stands?

Given everyday business scandals—whether concerning corruption, pollution or eye-watering salaries—the business schools often come across like drug dealers who blame the addicts while profiting from the sales. There are the occasional nods to ideas such as the U.N. Principles for Responsible Management Education and much waffle about ethics and culture. But there is little evidence that this is impacting on the strategies of business schools globally.

Doing Things Differently

This is why critical management studies is such an interesting development, because it means that the business school heads themselves are pressing to do things differently. The recent conference featured work on cooperatives, mutual finance, local economies and many other models for business which challenge the idea that business as usual is the only way forward.

For example, businessman David Erdal talks about the idea that worker ownership is more robust than share ownership, and academic activist Vandana Shiva shows how global biodiversity is being destroyed by big agrochemical companies. Other presentations explored alternative currencies, and attempts to produce a "slow" form of capitalism which is genuinely responsible.

The general tone was that business strategies of localism and cooperation, not global competition, should be the focus of business school education and research.

It is clear to many people that global capitalism is killing our planet, as well as stacking up inequalities which make our societies increasingly unstable and unhealthy. We might expect that the demands for change would come from below (and they are), but it is ironic that they are also beginning to come from the tenured teachers of the global elite.

The business school dons are revolting, and that might turn out to be a very good thing indeed.

Martin Parker is professor of organization and culture at University of Leicester. This article first appeared on The Conversation.

The Conversation