Future-proofing the UK business school deanship: Chartering horses for new courses



Dr Julie Davies, Association of Business Schools

In disruptive times when the familiar title of business school dean in the UK is being replaced by PVC and faculty/executive dean and there are shakeouts in the sector, we need to ensure we develop a new generation of resilient leaders responsible for UK business schools who will make a difference.

While many business schools claim to produce future leaders, little is known about the leaders of business schools. The few insights into leadership have tended to be anecdotal ‘selfies.’ As business and educational models of business schools evolve so has the nature of the deanship. Over time, it has shifted from a position that is internally elected by peers to a high stakes executive role hired after an extensive global search by head hunters. It is useful to reflect on the behaviours required of future UK business school deans and leadership teams and to promote further research from different stakeholders’ perspectives.

On the one hand, it is an interesting and exciting time for British business school deans. They are responsible for the most popular subject of study in UK universities. Currently one in seven students in UK universities studies business and management (although in Australia it is one in three). In 2012/13 there were 337,245 higher education enrolments in business and administrative studies in the UK. While the UK’s higher education sector has only grown on average by 5.2% since 1994, for business and administrative studies the average growth rate has been 28% (source: HESA 2012/13).

The REF impact agenda favours an applied field and motivates us to produce compelling stories about excellent business and management research that is cross disciplinary and cross sector with stronger community/corporate engagement. Other countries are highly impressed by this national policy of engaged scholarship. UK business schools are promoted as anchors for local economies, important engines of growth for start-ups, small and medium-sized enterprises, and entrepreneurship.

In post-92 university business schools, the traditional dean’s title is often replaced by a new title of ‘pro-vice-chancellor and executive dean.’ Where the business school is a faculty, the faculty dean occupies a powerful place in the top management team. This means they have cross university roles and leverage, however, this can severely reduce the time they allocate to the business school. There are also increasing opportunities to become dean of a private business school and/or pursue a multinational career. This suggests even greater hybridity and breadth amongst deans and the dean’s team. Business school leaders need to facilitate broader stakeholder engagement and integration within the university while differentiating the business school’s brand. They are expected to cope with an accelerated pace of change and global competition. We argue that future deans must develop higher profiles to champion the legitimacy of business schools in social and other media. This will require their engagement as public intellectuals with thought leadership and Government policy. Deans will need to articulate more explicitly their business schools’ achievements in meeting the bottom line linked with national economic growth, student employability, and engagement with wider social issues to demonstrate impact. They will also need to develop greater attention to managing performance (see Bono’s article that follows).

There is no doubt that UK business school deans have experienced phenomenal success in appealing to international and premium fee paying students. The UK has more triple accredited business schools than any other country. Like the Netherlands, the UK has three business schools ranked in the most recent University of Texas Dallas Top 100 Business School Research Rankings, i.e. the highest amongst European countries and the same as Singapore. Moreover, the UK has recruited international talent to the position of dean from leading institutions, for example to Cambridge, Cranfield, and Oxford from INSEAD, IMD, and Harvard respectively. Now that US business schools are declining and Asian and European schools are rising in the FT global MBA rankings (Collet and Vives, 2013), we are well placed to understand business and management education and research beyond the dominant US model.

Nevertheless, in the UK we are seeing falling full-time MBA student numbers and fewer Chinese and Indian students as a consequence of students being included in net migration targets. Internal and institutional mergers are resulting in the appointment of faculty deans without business school experience and the creation of positions of heads of departments of management, thereby deleting the traditional title of business school dean. As income is based mainly on tuition fees used to maintain expensive ‘castles’ (Cornuel, 2014) and cross university subsidies, as well as internationally mobile faculty, the business school deanship can seem like ‘mission impossible.’

The 2014 annual ABS leadership pipeline survey responses revealed that deans are expected to provide leadership, motivate, inspire and encourage people and manage stakeholders. Usually their ‘going in’ mandate is to deal with change, performance management, risk, and to make decisions. Self-management and personal resilience as well as negotiating skills are viewed as particularly important. Discrepancies between the remit discussed at interview and the subsequent actual mandate tend to relate to the need for greater decentralisation and agility on the part of the business school. Recruiting and the student experience are key challenges. In addition, some deans found staff morale lower than anticipated and that their jobs were more operational and less strategic with fewer opportunities to make university-wide strategic contributions than originally envisaged. There was also concern about disinterest from the centre and often a school’s financial performance turning out to be lower than expected.

Internally, deans sought better quality services from the central university, people and change management skills, and a focus on more realistic content for a 21st century curriculum. Suggestions to improve the dean’s lot included greater peer exchange, possible case studies of successful business school deanship, and examples of how deans have managed to keep their research intact while at the same time creating further opportunities post deanship.

These findings suggest that we need greater appreciation of what types of dean fit different schools and better understanding of the expectations of and support for the role. Despite a typically one-size-fits-all list of attributes in advertisements for business school deans, context remains hugely important. Entrepreneurial leadership, balancing compliance and innovation in a constrained complex and contested public sector context with multiple stakeholders are tough activities. This is especially so where notions of distributed and responsible leadership can be difficult to enact as academic faculty are incentivised by individualistic targets related to journal publications rather than engaged citizenship within the university. Individual faculty members and business school deans are both struggling for greater self-determination. Overall, it seems that current deans are preoccupied with making sense of their circumstances and facilitating change. They attend less to championing their value publicly which is an aspect of the role that needs to be addressed. They must work persuasively to shape and drive change from a middle position within institutional and industry constraints to get things done.

Future challenges for British business school deans are likely to include more mergers, consortia, and strategic alliances (as in Finland and France), greater self-sufficiency in relation to MBA surpluses (as in the USA, e.g. UCLA Anderson), progress with diversity issues (e.g. changing the current low proportions of female professors), and greater corporate and community engagement. In their report, Kring and Kaplan (2011) suggested that future business school deans must demonstrate ‘strategic skills, enterprise management, innovation, and people and relationship effectiveness.’ We would also add a focus on performance management (since the roles of academic faculty members are loosely defined), as well as strong communications skills upwards with the vice-chancellor and in public arenas to enhance legitimacy.

The Association of Business Schools has submitted a petition to the Privy Council to become the ‘Chartered Association of Business Schools.’ Assuming the outcome is successful, one option being mooted is to establish chartered membership for individuals in business schools. This will encourage continuous professional development and provide a useful mechanism to retool faculty members from narrow specialist roles of ‘professing’ to more complex academic leadership positions that demand broader skill sets in persuading and bridging multiple logics in hybrid organisations. It would help UK business schools to continue to punch above their weight by taking their own medicine ― professionalised leadership development and capacity building for business school leaders.


We must ensure ongoing commitment to our own (social) learning and the fitness for purpose of those at the helm of business schools to lead themselves in making tradeoffs between risks and rewards. What counts is not the size of UK business schools in the fight for students and talent, but recalibrating the talent and fight of our business school leaders to ensure we continue to raise the bar of British business school standards, outreach and our competitive advantage. In a post-heroic age of digital collaboration and social media, to produce future deans and other hybrid professional leaders, the Association of Business Schools needs proactively to continue to support the suitability and resilience of a diversity of ‘horses’ ― and teams of horses at all levels ― for new types of courses.

Dr Julie Davies: jdavies@the-abs.org.uk


Collet, F. and Vives, L. (2013) ‘From pre-eminence to prominence: The fall of U.S. business schools and the rise of European and Asian business schools in the Financial Times global MBA rankings’, Academy of Management Learning & Education, 12(4): 540―563.
Cornuel, E. (2014) From castles to networks: Will business schools survive? TEDxAix, 9 May, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1XVWvmFxtuM
Kring, K. and Kaplan, S. (2011) The business school dean redefined. New leadership requirements from the front lines of change in academia. Los Angeles, CA: Korn/Ferry Institute.
University of Texas Dallas Top 100 Business School Research Rankings http://jindal.utdallas.edu/the-utd-top-100-business-school-research-rank...

You can download the full leadership series as a PDF publication here