Time for inclusive RME: Bring in the students’ voice

by Debbie Haski-Leventhal and Irit Alony /

With the grim reality of climate change and a global pandemic, and with the fast-approaching deadline for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), business as usual is no longer an option. Companies and business schools are shifting direction to align with younger people’s growing expectations that we save the planet and humanity.

In the last two decades, the business world has come a long way, evolving out of a profit-driven and destructive competition into harnessing capabilities and resources to benefit the world. Captured in the term corporate social responsibility (CSR), companies increasingly aim to not only reduce their harm but also to have a positive environmental, social, and financial impact while creating multiple benefits to the company and all its stakeholders.

This shift also is echoed in business schools and management education. Given their role in developing business leaders, some business schools contribute to the new focus on ethical and responsible business leadership and management. In doing so, they transform from the obsession of being the ‘best in the world’ – typically reflected through rankings and alumni salaries – to being the ‘best for the world’, with a commitment to help in creating a more ethical and moral business environment.

To help with this change, the United Nations-supported PRME initiative guides business schools in promoting responsible management education (RME). By 2022, more than 800 business schools worldwide have already signed up for PRME, integrating these principles into their teaching, research, and operations. However, to be fully responsible, these business schools also need to be more inclusive and encompass their students’ voices and perspectives. This is what inclusive RME is all about.

This change is timely, as younger generations are increasingly expecting companies to become a force for good. Moreover, 81% of millennials desire their favourite companies to declare their corporate citizenship publicly. Youth involvement in shaping the future of the world they will live in is rising. One prominent example was The Youth Climate Summit at UN Headquarters ahead of the Climate Action Summit in September 2019. The young attendees demonstrated their contribution to humanity’s current struggles by exploring a broad range of innovative solutions to the climate crisis

Similar to how companies realise that they must integrate all stakeholders to fully promote their social responsibilities, business schools now need to do the same. As business students are the future leaders of businesses and corporations, they should be prioritised. They are the most influential stakeholder group of any business school and the talent that many companies strive to attract.

The Students’ Perspective

With the help and support of the UN PRME, we tracked students’ voices for a decade, with four rounds of online surveys (2011, 2013, 2016, and 2018) and over 5,000 individual responses (see all four reports here). We wanted to explore students’ awareness, sustainable behaviour, values, CSR and RME attitudes, and their views on business responsibilities. We also wanted to understand how important it was for students to work for responsible employers. Would they be willing to sacrifice a percentage of their future salary for that?

The survey results were consistent across time and countries, demonstrating clearly that business students press for higher levels of responsibility from themselves, their employers, the business world, and their educators. They desire businesses to act responsibly and ethically, demand that their business education focus more on CSR and sustainability and are willing to take actions and sacrifices to ensure that the world will be more just and fair.

When asked about business responsibility, these students no longer subscribe to the CSR pyramid offered by Carroll, which ranked CSR as financial, legal, ethical, and philanthropic. Instead, the students ranked ethical responsibilities as the most important one for businesses, followed by legal, and only then financial responsibility. The former order enabled scandals such as Enron. The latter established a new paradigm.

One of the most surprising findings, which received much attention from the media (including the New York Times), was that 1 in 5 students was willing to sacrifice more than 40% of their future salary to work for more responsible employers. They would do so for an employer who takes a holistic approach to CSR, caring about employees, the environment, the community, and all stakeholders. This is a strong signal that these students are sending us, as their educational institutions and their future employers. Failure to listen by either would result in resentment and withdrawal.

The year 2022 is already witnessing “The Great Resignation” and high employee (active) disengagement levels. Young people are more purpose-driven than previous generations, and employers and business schools that do not align with the growing demand for CSR and sustainability cannot engage them effectively. They are already starting a revolution bottom-up, with many students’ bodies focusing on issues vital to them worldwide.

Moving Forward

We suggest three things that business schools can do for inclusive RME:

  1. Include the students’ voices. Students are the business schools’ most important stakeholders. Without them, there is no business education. Given the increased commitment of these young people to matters of CSR and sustainability, they deserve a seat at the table. Include students from all backgrounds in decision making processes and curriculum design.
  2. Lead by example. Students expect business schools to show their commitment to sustainability clearly. This can be done with a sustainability-oriented curriculum, connections with socially responsible businesses, and impact-oriented service-learning projects.
  3. Connect students to responsible business. Business schools must act as their students’ ambassadors in their connections with future employers. Business schools should work with companies renowned for their CSR to offer students internships, working experience, tours, guest speakers, and career pathways.

As the global society is increasingly adopting responsible business and management, business schools and their students can join in to also become the trailblazers of this revolutionary shift, making an essential contribution to global sustainability. We need not only RME, but an inclusive RME to move forward to a more sustainable and just world.

Debbie Haski-Leventhal is professor of management at Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University. Irit Alony is lecturer in management at the School of Business of the University of Wollongong.

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