What do business schools do for society? | Letters

Martin Parker (Bulldoze the business school!, 27 April) is to be applauded, and it is increasingly clear that “business school-itis” is catching and now risks tainting universities root and branch. We only have to think of VC salaries, the staff pensions fracas, employability performance tables etc.

There are possibilities for developing managers/business people within the university setting without corrupting both the university ethos and the managers themselves – though whether business schools as presently organised can ever be that vehicle has to be questionable.

In the mid to late 1990s Cambridge University ran an educational programme for senior managers with high potential. I directed it, recruited from industry for the purpose. It stood apart from the university’s nascent business school and deployed expertise and insights from across all academic departments in the university. For the best emerging high flyers it aimed to illumine tomorrow’s world and help them navigate and shape it. In its own limited way it offered the mind-expanding experience and honing of judgmental skills that had been espoused for a liberal university education by Cardinal Newman in the face of the utilitarianism of his own age (The Idea of the University Defined and Illustrated, 1873). I believe the approach that programme offered – eclectic, questioning, principled – was the opposite of the amoral, prescriptive reductionism of business schools so well described by Martin Parker.

Incidentally, following Parker’s well-justified condemnation of the term “human resources” for its anti-human connotations, I am very happy to report that the professional body for HR practitioners resolutely avoids that term and continues to be styled the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development.

Barry Welch

Bridport, Dorset

• Martin Parker missed a trick in his provocative but strong case that the enveloping – and bound-to-be disastrous – collapse of business morality is partly rooted in the ethical feebleness of our business schools. As a former university chancellor, and occasional speaker at business schools over decades, I find that one simple argument carries more weight than myriad more sophisticated ones because it is readily and universally understood. That is that the words “rich” and “wealthy” are not of merely economic significance but of vastly broader human meaning. So I now prefix use of those words by the word “money” when utilising them in that limited sense.

Andrew Phillips

Liberal Democrat, House of Lords

• I attended a business diploma course at the Regent Street Polytechnic in 1969-70. One of the first lessons was an analysis of past students and their increase in salary since completing the last year’s course. The purpose was, of course, to justify our attendance. After nearly 50 years, the business plan for such institutions remains the same. But are we better professionals? I doubt it.

Richard Griffin


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