Business schools: less stereotyping and more collaboration in the interests of the nation

Business schools need to raise awareness about what they do, how they add value and how they could do more to help deal with the UK’s current challenges.

In my role as Chair of the Chartered ABS I have recently been involved in a series of meetings with senior politicians and policymakers in the Cabinet Office, Treasury, BEIS and Innovate UK. These were triggered by our joint initiative with the British Academy of Management (BAM) to raise the profile of our research and its value in the context of the UK’s Industrial Strategy. More of this below. The first key point to feedback from these meetings is that most people – in the above government bodies and beyond – do not really know a great deal about business schools. This includes who we are, what we teach, how we are funded and what kinds of research we conduct.

Stereotype vs. reality

The common stereotype is that business schools are full of accountants, mainly teaching MBA students. The view is that we research and teach how managers can increase profitability and earn more for themselves and, in the process, the business school makes (and keeps) a lot of money for ourselves.

The reality is:

  • Business school faculty come from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines. We are home to the largest and most diverse group of social scientists in the UK and we research and teach a wide range of subjects from the practical and managerial to the critical and the erudite. This includes, but goes well beyond the complexities of Brexit-related trade deals to the factors that raise plant-floor productivity, why consumers behave the way they do, to increasing the effectiveness of NGOs' operations to prevent diseases in Africa.
  • MBA students make up less than 5% of business school programmes. We teach some of the most popular subject areas at all levels, with 17% of all students, 14% of undergraduate students, 24% of all postgraduate students and 37% of all non-EU international students studying business and management degrees.
  • Average school income is £30 million per year (but some schools have revenues exceeding £80 million). So, we do bring in teaching income. But between 40% and 70% of this revenue goes to the central university to support central costs and the costs of other departments. In many cases, all income goes straight to the centre and business schools must bid for every penny they get.
  • Together the UK’s (over 130) business schools earn an estimated £5 billion per year and have an economic impact of over £13 billion.

We know this partly from our own Chartered ABS survey work and the ‘Pathways to Success’ project, but also from HESA and other data sources.

Research value, impact and funding

Our recent meetings with government are part of a wider awareness-raising campaign by the Chartered ABS, and the direct result of our position paper: ‘Enhancing the Added Value of Business and Management Research in the UK’. This focuses on how we can better leverage current research and further develop our research to meet some of the country’s economic and social challenges. While this might sound grandiose we feel that there is a major opportunity for business schools and government to work more closely together to tackle these ‘big problems’.

One of the reasons that this may become a missed opportunity is the widespread ignorance about our sheer scale and scope (above). Another is the small and declining amount of government research funding that is awarded to business schools. This is particularly significant, if you take this to indicate external perceptions of the ‘value-add’ of this research in the context of these grand challenges. The position paper provides much of the detail, but it is worth putting this into perspective at a time when we are seeing a welcome increase in HEI funding generally.

Not only has funding from UK sources for business and management research declined by 25% in real terms over the last six years, it has always been surprisingly low, given our size. A quick estimate shows that of the £7 billion pot overseen by UKRI, Research England receives just over half (£3.6 billion), the EPSRC and MRC about 11% each, InnovateUK 9% and the ESRC just over 2%. This in itself gives an indication of the value attached to the social sciences generally.

Taking the 19 core discipline areas funded by the ESRC, business and management (B&M) sits in the top half of the distribution in terms of proposals and in the bottom half in terms of funding awarded. In fact, in an analysis of success rates over 3 years (2014/15 to 2016/17) its success rate was 14.4%, the 3rd lowest of the 19 subject areas. 14 out of 19 disciplines have success rates of over 20% (social anthropology achieves 33%). Putting this into real money terms, Sociology received £66 million in grants for this period (over 18% of the total £360 million awarded) and B&M received £9.6 million. Taking this brief analysis one step further, B&M faculty make up an estimated 20% of all UK-based social scientists but received less than 3% of ESRC funding, in this period.

Clearly there are a range of complex reasons for this mismatch. The point of this piece, our initiative and the above meetings is not to complain about the funding shortfall, but to highlight the opportunity. In a time of major economic, social and political uncertainty (including but well beyond Brexit) we need to leverage all of our national intellectual assets and focus our problem-solving capabilities on these key challenges. Yet a very large pool of relevant expertise is not being utilised in this effort, partly because of funding, but also because of the lack of other incentives, bridging and ‘translation’ mechanisms. Some practical propositions to progress this agenda are highlighted in the full paper.

Finally, while government bodies and a range of national stakeholders need to be made more aware of the current and potential future added-value of our business schools, business schools also need to step up to the challenge. We should be focusing more of our time, resources, knowledge and expertise on the things that matter to the rest of the country.


Professor Simon Collinson is Professor of International Business and Innovation and Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Regional Economic Engagement at Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham. He is the Chair of the Chartered ABS.