Teaching & Learning:
Perspectives on the Business of Business Schools – Part 2

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DATE
06/11/2019


AUTHOR
Angus Laing, Co-Founder & Chairman Nurture Higher Education Group

So where to start? Well with student numbers obviously …

1) Student demand: the obsession to beat all obsessions
“Are we on track to meet the coming year’s target?” is the perpetual nagging question in the mind of a Dean immediately the current year’s cohort is registered. This is the key dimension on which business schools – and by extension – the Dean is judged by university management, especially given the role of business schools to generate a surplus to support STEM disciplines a source of constant pressure. So, data on evolving patterns and trends of student demand, nationally and globally, the performance and activities of our “competitor set” is the inevitable starting point for any Dean’s thinking on teaching. Many other obsessions flow from this underlying issue – league tables, graduate outcomes, student satisfaction being the most obvious.

Alongside the obsession with the schools overall numbers is the shape of demand across the range of programmes offered by the school. What’s up, what’s down, what are the budgetary implications for individual departments, what is the impact on the overall shape of the school, what is the impact on space and staffing requirements. Within programmes what is the mix of students, most notably in the UK, setting the balance of domestic and international students and how to handle the risk of a high proportion of students from certain international markets. Inevitably this student mix has implications for the student experience, the suitability of particular pedagogical approaches, the need for specialist student support (e.g. language support). The juggling of competing pressures around student numbers is the daily bread of a Dean.

2) Government policy and regulation (what’s the next rabbit out the hat?) 
As any Dean will instantly recognise business schools operate in a highly regulated environment and one where changes in government policy are increasingly frequent. Academics are blessedly free from wrestling with changes in government policy. Yes, it ultimately impinges on their activities, but they don’t have the same exposure, the same need to consider how to anticipate the impact of policy developments.  It comes into sharp relief in meetings where faculty eyes glaze over as you outline the latest policy changes and the first question from academic colleagues is “okay so what are you going to do about the IT failures in the classroom”. 

Obviously, policy and regulation are specific to individual countries, but it is worth using the case of the United Kingdom to illustrate the concerns relating to learning and teaching with which Deans may have to wrestle. The fundamental shift in the UK has been in the transferring of the cost of higher education from the state to the student, through the introduction of student fees, to the positioning of students as consumers. This shift has fundamentally affected teaching in business schools. Firstly, the removal of the limit on undergraduate student numbers created a competitive free-for-all in student recruitment leading to significant growth opportunities for some and painful reduction in demand for others. Secondly, the regulatory infrastructure has been radically reshaped with the replacement of a sector led regulator with the “Office for Students” possessing highly intrusive powers and being mandated to safeguard student (consumer) rights with a particular emphasis on value for money and student outcomes. The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) lies at the core of this regulation, with Universities and soon individual disciplinary areas, being awarded Gold to Bronze ratings on the basis of performance against a set of measures relating to teaching and the student experience. 

These changes impact on all dimensions of learning and teaching, indeed all aspects of the student experience. Level of contact hours, indicators of student satisfaction, measures of graduate outcomes teaching qualifications of staff. The T&L obsession of Deans is about meeting metrics demanded by regulators, and that’s before needing to deal with the metrics we joyously impose on ourselves via league tables and accreditation.

3) League tables and rankings (that particular temple of pain)
The past three decades have spawned a growth industry in league tables at university, and particularly business school, level. Any conversation involving senior staff in universities or business schools will very rapidly move onto league tables, despite the constant invocation the “we mustn’t be driven by league tables”. The significance of rankings (and their potentially deleterious effects) have been amply illustrated by events in a nameless US business school over the past year. 

While rankings comprise a range of dimensions beyond teaching and learning including research performance, staff profile, spend per student etc, at the core are components that relate either to input factors or outcomes associated with teaching and learning activities. In terms of bachelor’s programmes, rankings tend to be nationally specific and reflect the peculiarities of that particular system. In the United Kingdom across the three main league tables - the Complete Guide, the Guardian, and the Times/Sunday Times – the teaching and learning dimensions cluster around entry standards, student-staff ratios, student satisfaction, and graduate prospects. Turning to master’s programmes, rankings abound – the Financial Times, Business Week, the Economist, Forbes etc. These rankings tend to be more international although given the scale of the United States business school market certain rankings tend to be heavily US centric. However, in terms of dimensions there is a high degree of commonality, but a commonality which differently weighted to that in bachelors rankings. Taking the Financial Times as an exemplar of these master’s rankings, the overwhelming emphasis is on salary and career outcomes – particularly salary gain – with lesser weight on staff and student quality and diversity. 

For Deans these dimensions are critical touch-points with teaching and learning agendas. “How will this initiative improve our performance in league tables?” “What are we doing to improve graduate outcomes” are common and consistent components of the Dean’s engagement with colleagues around teaching. For frontline academics, as with policy and regulation, this obsession may feel alien and remote (not to mention unhealthy) but it is a lens through which Deans view the world. The obsessions are derivative, and Deans may regularly jibe against them but when the Vice Chancellor or Provost questions the School’s league table performance they are very real and will inevitably cascade down into influencing the delivery of programmes and hence impact the lives of academic colleagues.

For Deans these dimensions are critical touch-points with teaching and learning agendas. “How will this initiative improve our performance in league tables?” “What are we doing to improve graduate outcomes” are common and consistent components of the Dean’s engagement with colleagues around teaching. For frontline academics, as with policy and regulation, this obsession may feel alien and remote (not to mention unhealthy) but it is a lens through which Deans view the world. The obsessions are derivative, and Deans may regularly jibe against them but when the Vice Chancellor or Provost questions the School’s league table performance they are very real and will inevitably cascade down into influencing the delivery of programmes and hence impact the lives of academic colleagues.