Does business research in the UK need levelling up?

The relationship between business schools and their parent universities has always been characterised by a certain amount of tension over budgets, ideology and intellectual standing. But the UK’s recent Research Excellence Framework casts some interesting light on these age-old debates.

First, whatever people might assert about the academic depth of business and management as a discipline, it is clear that its teaching is informed by masses of research. With 108 universities returning around 6,600 staff to the REF, it was responsible for the largest submission of any discipline except for the combined engineering panel (which submitted 7,400 staff). Research is happening at business schools in every part of the UK, at universities that vary enormously in size, history and character.

This scale – accounting for 16,000 outputs – meant the REF assessment panel had to be both big and broad. The panel chair, Robert Blackburn, told last week’s Chartered ABS Research Conference that the constant refrain among the panel was to be “robustly generous” – which perhaps reflects past failures to talk across methodological boundaries. The sense is growing of a multifaceted subject that is increasingly united in purpose, if not approach.

Still, the census data tell us that we in business and management – in common, no doubt, with other subjects – are still being inherently cautious in choosing what to put forward for evaluation. Just over 1 per cent of outputs were books, yet we know that many of the big ideas that have shaped business management over the decades have been presented in monographs where there is space and scope to express complex concepts and build an argument. In contrast, peer reviewed journal articles accounted for 97 per cent of all the outputs reviewed. So our field seems fixated on the hit single rather than the concept album, and perhaps this comes at a cost, both in terms of ground-breaking ideas and in terms of accessibility to non-academic audiences.

Business and management is sometimes criticised, too, for its supposed over-reliance on journal rankings. One of these is produced by the Chartered Association of Business Schools, the body I chair. The REF offers the potential to study how reliable such metrics are. A forthcoming analysis from the business and management panel will review the correlation between journal ratings and the REF ratings of the papers that have appeared in them.

Nevertheless, with an increasing number of universities becoming signatories to the Declaration on Research Assessment (Dora), which abjures the use of journal rankings to judge individuals, it is more important than ever to re-emphasise that the Chartered ABS’s Academic Journal Guide is named as such for a reason. It is a guide, pure and simple. Its true purpose is to assist researchers to make informed judgements about the outlets they may wish to publish in. It was never intended to be predictive of the quality of individual papers, and there is no reason for business and management to be any more metrics-driven than any other subject.

One area, however, where the REF does highlight a systematic distinction between business and management and other subjects is funding. It is often assumed that business and management is awash with cash, but the reality is very different. Despite being the second largest community of researchers across the 34 units of assessment, business and management research ranks 30th in terms of research income per FTE per annum, and 28th in terms of doctoral awards. Of the 23,451 staff returned to panel C, business and management represented 28% by headcount but received only 14% of research income for panel C over the REF2021 assessment period. You can view the figures for average research income per FTE and the average number of doctoral degrees per FTE here.

Yes, business research typically has lower operating costs than medicine, science or engineering. Yes, business schools generate cash from student fees, particularly high international fees: one in three international students in the UK studies business. But that money cross-subsidises a wide range of other disciplines and services in universities. When you account for the number of staff involved, it is clear that we in business and management are being starved of the time and resource available in other disciplines.

The consequence is that there are fewer research assistants and postdoctoral researchers in circulation in business schools relative to those disciplines that attract more external funding. The highest ranked subject in the REF, clinical medicine, receives 26 times more per head per year than business and management, yet we know that solving the big societal challenges, such as the pandemic, sustainability and national productivity, depends at least as much on expertise in logistics, innovation, consumer behaviour and business models as it does on science.

Perhaps a more meaningful contrast is with theology and religious studies. Like business and management this subject does not require equipment, lab technicians or consumables. But it secures 47 per cent more funding per person per year and ranks second only to chemistry in terms of doctoral completions.

As the REF results underline, business schools already do research that positively impacts both the economy and those working within it, in everything from corporations to NGOs and social enterprises. Imagine how much more they could do, though, if they were better supported.

Expecting the same level of funding as clinical medicine and the other STEM disciplines would be unrealistic. But we could surely expect to see as much importance placed on supporting research in business and management as on that in theology?

Robert MacIntosh is chair of the Chartered Association of Business Schools and Pro Vice Chancellor at Northumbria University.