UK business schools are doing extremely well in the international quality rankings, outperforming many of their North American and European counterparts. They attract large numbers of international students and, as a result, generate more than £1bn of invisible earnings a year in the UK. But they face an increasingly competitive international environment, and, to remain successful, business and management education needs to stay responsive to changes in the skills and abilities needed by practising managers and business leaders.
The key challenges facing business and management education providers are the same as for business and the corporate world at large, since both increasingly view each other as a key partner in developing managerial skills, enhancing the employability of graduates and providing innovative work-based learning. However, out of a long list of shared challenges, the key one over the coming decade is sustainability.
It's hard to overestimate the importance of the issues of climate change, global warming and sustainability to society, the business world and, explicitly, business and management education. Every aspect of business-school curricula - accounting, marketing, strategy, organisational behaviour and business ethics, to name a few - is being affected significantly. Expectations of business students are shifting dramatically too. There's an interest not only in sustainability but also in the eco-friendliness and the corporate responsibility performance of the companies and organisations they are choosing to work for.
Three aspects of this directly involve business and management education. First, how sustainability is taught; second, how it is researched; and, third, how business schools are altering their own behaviour to reduce their environmental impact and improve their own organisational sustainability.
With regard to how sustainability is taught, there is much innovation. New programmes - for instance, in CSR and strategic carbon management - are available and more are being launched. These will rapidly become mainstream. The challenge is how best to include the scientific and environmental aspects within an essentially business-focused perspective.
Many business schools are collaborating effectively with the science and environment departments of their parent universities in order to achieve this, and this also applies to research - which, again, needs to reflect these increasingly important inter-relationships. However, it needs to be done in a questioning way. For example, recent business school research into 'food miles' concluded that consumer preference for lower-food-miles produce was not necessarily the most environmentally friendly, and a more comprehensive measure of its impact was needed.
As to improving sustainability and the role of government, there's an obvious progression from the initial awareness-raising phase through optional metrics and incentives to what's likely to become a highly regulated environment.
In the third regard - altering their own behaviour and improving their own organisational sustainability - business schools and universities are already being incentivised. Like companies, they'll become increasingly regulated on these aspects. Indeed, the secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills has linked core university funding to improved sustainability.
However, there's one aspect that both business schools and corporations might need to re-evaluate: how sustainable is the current model of flying huge numbers of students (and practising managers) and/or faculty members around the world? Air miles, once a mark of business success, could easily tip in the opposite direction as organisations pursue carbon neutrality. There have been huge advances in learning technologies and in the creation of virtual learning environments in both higher education and the corporate world, and these seem to offer a way forward in lowering carbon footprints. A corresponding shift in students' attitudes, skills and preferences with regard to modes of learning and social networking will further drive innovation towards multimedia, virtual learning.
I'll sum up with a quotation from the Prince of Wales' 'Accounting for Sustainability' Project, which published its proposals in December 2007: 'It is a huge challenge for business schools to work with the chief executives and practising managers of today and yet also prepare the young managers of tomorrow, in a climate where the pace of corporate change and planet Earth are both heating up rapidly. Increasingly, it is not just about delivering education and research about sustainability but the reality that universities and business schools themselves are putting sustainable practices in place and being held publicly accountable for these.'
Based on past experience and the current level of innovation in business education, I believe that UK business schools and learning providers will rise to these significant challenges. As learning and research providers to the corporate world, they'll enhance their own future sustainability and that of their business partners.
Jonathan Slack is chief executive of the Association of Business Schools (ABS), which comprises over 115 major UK business schools. He is involved in all aspects of ABS strategy, policy formulation and implementation particularly the promotion of UK business schools nationally and internationally. Slack also chairs the European Quality Link organisation (Equal), whose 18 member associations collectively represent about 1,500 business schools, 200 major corporations and 100,000 or so business-school alumni around the world. Before joining ABS, Slack worked in both industry and academia in materials technology.