Sustainability now key selling point for business schools attracting students

GuardianAfter years of neglect, students are now demanding business courses include sustainability on the syllabus

It has become increasingly accepted in corporate boardrooms that sustainability is an important business issue, but the business schools that train the managers of tomorrow – and the students themselves – have not always kept pace.

In the past, issues such as climate change, labour condition and access to resources were not widely recognised as factors that could make a big difference to the bottom line and students were encouraged to focus on maximising shareholder value, short-term profits and the narrow interests of individual businesses rather than society and the economy as a whole.

“It used to be painful to teach sustainability issues,” says Matthew Gitsham, director of Business and Sustainability at Ashridge Business School. “There was lots of resistance and even anger among the students, many of whom thought sustainability was irrelevant and even a waste of the money they had spent on fees.”

Sustainability scholars used to struggle to reach out to their colleagues in business schools, says Frederik Dahlmann, assistant professor of global energy at Warwick Business School. Talking about sustainability can also make it harder to get papers published in academic journals, he adds. “There’s no clear reason that should be the case, but you almost always have to downplay the sustainability aspect and talk about operational issues. It is partly because so many journals are based in the US, where sustainability is less accepted as a business issue than in Europe.”

However, the situation is changing, he says. “Students see this as an area that they can no longer choose to ignore. Many business schools are now driving it as an area where they can have a competitive advantage.”

Ashleigh Dueker, an MBA student at Lancaster University, signed up to her course after a stint working as a member of the Peace Corps in a rural village in Mali. “The most sustainable approach to development is through empowering local people by letting them make their own money rather than handing out aid. I was helping to promote local business start-ups for income generation but based on what I thought, having done an undergraduate degree in neuropsychology. I knew I needed to come to business school to learn how to promote business better.”

Having secured a job at the consultancy Grant Thornton, she plans to do pro bono work in the community where she previously volunteered.

It was the financial crisis that triggered a widespread change in attitudes, partly because many of the accreditation bodies that assess business courses – such as EQUIS (European Quality Improvement System), AMBA (Association of MBAs) and AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) – built into their criteria a requirement that business schools should include sustainability as part of the syllabus, according to Dr Morven McEachern, director of the Centre for Social Business at Salford Business School.

“The accreditation platforms came to us [the academic community] and said ‘you have to do something’. There is more pressure on business schools to provide a balanced view,” she says. “As part of our responsibility to educate and develop people, we have a responsibility to show them what is happening in the world and the impact of what we do.”

Mark Stoddard, director of operations at AMBA, says sustainability is now incredibly important for all MBA stakeholders. “In research carried out by AMBA over the last few years, students, alumni and employers highlighted the value of sustainability, and its increasing importance over time. Almost 80% of business schools agreed that sustainability is an important part of the MBA curriculum, with a similar figure believing in the shift to a stakeholder approach to management and business.”

This shift in attitude is evident among employers as well, says Andy Cartland, co-founder of sustainability-focused recruitment company Acre. “We are seeing sustainability being embedded more deeply into businesses. It is being seen as a skill that people can’t do without. If we are not addressing these issues at business schools, we won’t capture the huge opportunities that sustainability issues create.”

However, Jonathan Grant, director, sustainability & climate change at PwC, says the focus on sustainability in business schools is too little, too late. “If we start teaching sustainability at MBA level, we are too late. Primary school children seem to spend more time learning about the ancient Egyptians than learning about the environment. Children should have at least one hour per week at primary school on sustainability and climate change, and this should increase as they get older. After all, children starting their education this year will leave university in 2030 – at that point, the low carbon transition should be well under way.”

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