In this blog, Professor Martin Parker offers some personal reflections on changes in the teaching and research of management at Leicester in the fifteen years he has worked here. Does a business school have to be ‘for’ business?
When I arrived at the then Management Centre at Leicester University in 2003 it was to somewhere that was being written about in the Times Higher Education Supplement as a new ‘business utopia’ for critical teaching and research about organizations, markets and society. Though management had been taught at Leicester since 1989, initially within the Department of Economics, 2003 marked the announcement of a radically new approach. A small centre, heavily reliant on a distance learning MBA, was given enough posts to grow its staff numbers and a new head, Gibson Burrell, a renowned academic associated with Critical Management Studies. By the end of the year, the centre had doubled in size, and all the appointments shared a critical, or at least interdisciplinary, understanding of management.
It continued to grow. The centre became a School in 2007, and Alan Bryman became the new head in 2008, followed by Simon Lilley until 2015. All shared a sense of the importance of cultivating and protecting the School as a site for heterodox work on management. This was never easy. Despite the enthusiasm of the then Vice Chancellor, the sociologist Bob Burgess, there were always many members of senior management within the university who treated the approach with a great deal of suspicion. A common refrain was the idea that the School was becoming a nest of Marxists and postmodernists, hostile to business, and therefore not earning the sort of financial surplus that conventional business schools could.
The money is the issue here. The steady withdrawal of state funding to UK universities effectively meant that they increasingly needed their business schools to be earning the contribution that kept less profitable departments open. Indeed, I would argue that without the income from business schools, the growth and marketization of higher education would not have been possible. For most universities, this meant that business schools grew rapidly from the 1990s onwards, particularly in terms of lucrative taught master’s degrees.
Whether the Management School at Leicester could have made more income for the University is arguable, but it was always believed that it could. However, because its critical orientation was so closely tied to Bob Burgess, who seemed to understand it as a ‘sociological’ school, a certain bargain seemed to be struck. As long as the School made respectable contributions (over 50%), it was allowed to continue recruiting critical staff. The word ‘critical’ sometimes become less prominent, largely for political reasons, and was sometimes replaced with euphemisms like ‘heterodox’, ‘social scientific’ or ‘interdisciplinary’, but the direction was still clear enough.
The fragility of this bargain was exposed when the VC retired in 2014. A new VC and senior management team, a re-organization of the academic structure into a new faculty, and a financial crisis meant that there seemed to be greater pressure on all parts of the university to make their contributions. Old assumptions evaporated, and the argument that Leicester needed a ‘proper’ business school gained increasing purchase.
And so, in 2016, the Management School merged once more with Economics and a new Business School was announced. The new school was described as being more engaged with business, more relevant and practical. Though it was never said explicitly, the critical seemed to be sliding from view, or being described as just one element of the School, and not its defining character. Though financial ‘targets’ were not explicitly discussed, the growth strategy seemed to be primarily concerned with delivering greater levels of contribution to a university which needed the money.
Which takes us to the present, and the problems that the School now faces. The ‘critical’ people from Management bemoan the more managerial messaging. The Economists don’t want to be part of a business school. The sheer scale of the School has now exceeded the capacity of the University’s infrastructure and it is already much too large to cope with the satellite campus it is intended to move to over the next few years. And university management appears to both need and resent its dependence on the School. These are not easy times.
But leaving aside the current difficulties, the bigger issue at stake here is the future of ‘critical’ teaching and research in business and management. Perhaps it is now the case that the financial pressures on UK universities are such that they push appointments, teaching, and marketing to the safe and profitable mainstream. Business schools end up teaching business as usual, and largely ignore the challenges of sustainability, social justice and global inequality that characterise contemporary capitalism.
Despite their noisy protestations to the contrary, the hundred business schools in the UK all look and sound pretty much the same. For a while Leicester’s School of Management was trying to be different, but will that continue to be the case, or will it become another vanilla flavoured cash cow? That, I suspect, depends on how easy it will be to forget the last fifteen years. I know I won’t.