How will business schools tackle the big issues in HE?

Professor Angus Laing, Dean, Lancaster University Management School, shares his views

The Higher Education Bill has the potential to impact considerably on the Business School sector. Whilst very much part of the HE scene and affected by national ranking instruments such as the NSS and DHEL scores; Business Schools are governed by additional reputational drivers in the form of international postgraduate rankings and league tables such as those in the Financial Times and Economist. 

Uneven impact

The HE Bill delivers uneven impact in that for providers further down these Business School specific rankings, and even more so the unranked schools, there will be considerable challenges as the TEF rankings will be a surrogate quality indicator for postgraduate students. By contrast for the higher ranked Business Schools the impact of TEF rankings will be counterbalanced by the sector specific rankings and there may also be considerable opportunities arising from other aspects of the HE Bill.

This is reflective of the wider HE sector of course, but as the new TEF ranking won’t have any effect on Business School rankings such as the FT, the new teaching excellence standards will have little effect on raising the profile of business schools lower down the rankings in the eyes of prospective international and postgraduate students.

Providers lower down the rankings who struggle to compete on the basis of rankings and associated positioning may find they have to both reduce costs and enhance quality, at least in terms of TEF measures to compete, which could lead to natural discussions of how they are organised. I think with such pressures we may well see the formalisation of networks and chains of business school providers as competition heats up. There is little doubt that new private providers will compete on the basis of cost advantage over existing providers who will have to explore radical options to survive. This will raise interesting questions for VCs in contemplating the future for their business schools. 

I think with such pressures we may well see the formalisation of networks and chains of business school providers as competition heats up

The opportunities for higher ranked providers lie in the ability to combine a strong showing in these business school rankings with a gold teaching standard to further boost reputation and market share.  This ‘extra’ badge of reputation will no doubt help UK Business Schools in the top tier navigate the increasingly challenging recruitment market due to the UK’s vote to leave the EU. Business schools have, perhaps unsurprisingly, proven themselves to be adept at exploiting accreditation and other award schemes to promote themselves.

The more interesting question is the potential role which highly ranked business schools may play in the consolidation of the sector through engaging with the formation of networks or chains of schools, and the opportunities to work with private investors to develop alternative models of provision.

The problem of Brexit…

11% of UK business school students come from the EU and ALL business schools will be seeking ways try to overcome the self-inflicted wounds of Brexit. Even highly ranked schools will face increasing challenges in managing the perception, which is ultimately what matters, that the UK is an unwelcoming country. We should not forget that alongside rankings and the advantage endowed by English, the very openness of the British economy to globalisation, innovation and enterprise is part of what has attracted students to Britain’s business schools.

Brexit, or at least the prospect of a closed/hard Brexit undermines that attraction. Consequently there will likely be an ever greater focus of attention on activities outside the UK. Already the UKs business schools are well represented globally with branch and franchise operations. With Brexit we can anticipate increasing development of branch operations more closely connected to the home campus, being far more part of the core operation than has been the case to date.

The connectivity arising from technology, the opportunity to access non-UK research funding, as well as scope to connect with global businesses offers attractive opportunities for business schools to operate as more globally integrated operations in responding to Brexit.

Every cloud? 

So whilst the political landscape of the UK provides huge challenges to UK business schools, the Government’s reaction to concerns over the loss of research funding from Horizon 2020 could be the greatest opportunity for UK business schools. The £4.2 billion for research and innovation announced in the Autumn Statement, with the specific objective of enhancing innovation, productivity and ultimately growth, means that Business Schools have the opportunity to align research and development activities; for example professional programs, degree apprenticeships and executive education; with regional and national needs. Scope to access significant funding through close collaboration with business at a regional or industry specific level could unlock big purses for UK business schools, at least those schools capable of connecting cutting edge research expertise with practice. 

Scope to access significant funding through close collaboration with business at a regional or industry specific level could unlock big purses for UK business schools

My School, Lancaster University Management School is already finding opportunity through national problems. The “Productivity through People” programme delivered by Lancaster in conjunction with BAE, Rolls Royce and Siemans as part of the work undertaken by the Productivity Leadership Group has attracted specific funding to support this and similar developments aimed at addressing fundamental weaknesses in Britain’s economic performance, and critically, in turn address the underlying economic disenfranchisement that lay behind the Brexit vote.

Our relaunching of the Work Foundation as a think-tank anchored within LUMS at the core of the productivity and future of work debates represents the type of opportunity which we have to seize if business schools are to thrive in this turbulent and challenging environment.

In short, 2017 will be an interesting year, and will sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of institutions that have a solid proposition to offer students, industry and academia. In other words, in changing times, we will have to practice what we preach.  

Read another post by Angus here.

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