Why are business schools killing our planet?

by Martin Parker / There is something of a tension between what business schools do and what they say. Not all of them, but most of them, are far more motivated by league table positions than climate change, social justice and exclusion. I suppose this shouldn’t surprise us, because for most b-schools, fee income is the most important driver of their current curriculum, marketing, course development and so on. They might say that they care about modern slavery and fair trade, but they care most about having full lecture theatres.

This is a massive problem, because it means that the huge number of students studying business across the world are being sold what will sell. ‘So what?’, you might say. The idea that a business school should be market sensitive sounds obvious. What’s the point of putting on courses that students aren’t prepared to pay for? That sounds like something they would teach in Business 101. So what’s the problem? Why should we care that b-schools are selling degrees?

Think about other professional schools – architecture, law, medicine and so on. In order to build a structure that doesn’t fall down, or navigate the complexities of a legal system, or mend broken human bodies, we would assume that what students wanted to learn was only part of what generated the curriculum. Structural engineering, tax law or biochemistry might be hard, but that doesn’t mean that they would be dropped in order to make sure that students weren’t put off. The expert academics, professional bodies and practitioners who teach the course primarily decide what should be taught, not marketing departments imagining customers on the degrees.

So why is business and management different? There are a few answers, but most of them rely on the idea that business education is a product to be sold, and not a form of occupational training. There have been many attempts to professionalise management, and there are lots of national and regional associations that have tried to do it, but none have succeeded. Anyone can call themselves a manager, and that means that business school deans are competing with business gurus and consultancy outfits to sell their products with exaggerated claims about what they can do. They all market fairy dust, promising salaries and lifestyles if you pay money for their ‘unique’ or ‘distinctive’ programme or book.

Now if this was just a bunch of scam artists selling people ways to lose weight in ten days, or make a million dollars by working two hours a week, we might say ‘buyer beware’. If it’s too good to be true, then it probably is, so keep your money in your pocket. The problem is that the global b-school industry has consequences for all of us and allowing it to continue selling get rich quick schemes is endangering the future of life on this planet. It’s that simple.

You might think I’m exaggerating, but consider these numbers. Business and management are the most common subjects in the knowledge being sold by the global university system, providing fee income of at least $400 billion dollars in around 13,000 schools globally. In 2018, UNESCO statistics indicated that the global national average percentage of students studying ‘business, administration or law’ was 28.4%.  According to Eurostat, in the same year, over one in five European students were studying the same combination. In the UK, where I work, one in seven students are studying ‘business or administrative studies’.

There are two important consequences to this extraordinary subject dominance. One is that, in 95% of these business schools, 95% of the time, future citizens of our warming planet are being taught about digital marketing, data analytics, capital markets, brand strategy, strategic HRM and innovation with no reference to political economy or the planetary boundaries of global capitalism. Indeed, one business school has recently sacked staff who taught ‘critical management’ in order to make their products more market-friendly. Vanilla, according to their marketing department, sells better than critical flavours.

The second problem is that the gravitational force of this pile of cash and people means that the business school is now in lockstep with a set of ‘partners’ who occupy powerful positions within the orthodoxy and benefit from this arrangement of power and knowledge. Publishers that sell academic journals, textbooks, citation data and journal publication software; media companies that sell ranking data and advertising; financial institutions that lend career development money to students; professional associations that sell membership and conferences; a host of conventional businesses that sponsor lecture theatres and harvest graduates. And, in my country, the universities that need the money to replace dwindling state support.

The pressure is to reproduce the existing set-up, combined with a fear that anything too radical will not sell, so the response to talk of problems is usually to say that reform might be needed to make capitalism work better and be kinder – corporate purpose and responsibility, diversity and sustainability – but real change is not on the curriculum. Changing the system is not one of the learning outcomes. Don’t rock the boat, because a lot of people earn their dinners from the way that things are right now.

This must end. The simple truth is that business operations, whether Amazon or your local bakery, emit carbon. The container ships and trucks that move products around the world are causing global heating. Theories about growth and competitive advantage built into business strategies are causing climate change. Assumptions about the mobility of capital and rapid returns are destroying our collective home. If business schools were actually addressing this issue then all modules on all courses in all b-schools in the world would be teaching their students how to reach zero. As well as ending modern slavery and encouraging fair trade. Business schools would be teaching students how to make a just transition to a new economy, and not clawing their way up league tables.

The question is how this is done, in a system without professional regulation, and where fee revenue is the dominant criterion for deciding whether a business school is successful or not. Perhaps UN PRME needs its own league table? A ranking of which schools are actually altering what they teach, and not just what they say. And then business schools could compete to be at the top of that one instead, and our students might have a less dangerous planet to live on.

Martin Parker is Professor of Organization Studies at the School of Management, University of Bristol, UK, and Lead for the Inclusive Economy Initiative. He is the author of Shut Down the Business School (Pluto Press, 2018).


2 thoughts on “Why are business schools killing our planet?

  1. It is worth considering what exactly business schools teach students how to do. I would offer a preliminary answer: build capital.

    So long as the practices that build capital highly correlate with the practices that “kill the planet,” business schools will continue teaching students how to kill the planet. But it’s not a direct effect. No business school teaches students how to kill the planet.

    Instead, the outcome is indirect. Business schools teach practices to build capital. In a world where building capital usually kills the planet, business schools indirectly teach practices that kill the planet.

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