Paper presented at Higher Education Close Up, an international conference from 6-8 July 1998 at University of Central Lancashire, Preston. This conference is jointly hosted by the Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University and the Department of Education Studies, University of Central Lancashire and is supported by the Society for Research into Higher Education
The work of Tony Becher has been influential in mapping the academic 'tribes' who inhabit the world of higher education. Both Becher (1989) and Evans (1988; 1993) have produced ethnographic studies from traditional areas of the university curriculum. However, there is only limited understanding of academic communities in newer, more applied areas of the curriculum. This paper, based on depth interviews with university lecturers, seeks to redress this imbalance. It sets out an analysis of the 'tribal' origins and core beliefs of business lecturers. The paper concludes by assessing the implications of the findings for higher education.
Business departments need to be understood as divergent communities principally consisting of career academics with disciplinary roots in other, more traditional, areas of higher education. A small minority of business lecturers are drawn from a recent and substantive practitioner-based background. The majority are recruited from mature disciplinary communities, such as economics or sociology, and have often succeeded in re-inventing their own academic identity by moving into an emerging business discipline, such as marketing.
The disciplinary background of business lecturers is key to understanding their attitudes to both pedagogy and epistemology. While business lecturers are largely committed to the vocational preparation of students they espouse contrasting pedagogic philosophies in seeking to achieve this goal. 'Pragmatic synthesizers' want students to absorb knowledge and acquire the skill of a problem-solver, while 'critical evaluators' define their primary pedagogic purpose as encouraging students to reflect on and to evaluate knowledge claims. There is also an epistemological schism between lecturers based on attitudes to business knowledge. Lecturers with a background in social science disciplines have a largely context-independent attitude to knowledge. They regard knowledge derived from a business context as often transitory and of limited long-term value to students. By contrast, lecturers with more business experience, often teaching in areas of the curriculum related to functional specialisms, have a more context-dependent attitude. They argue in favour of rapid responsiveness to the business context.
The study of business has been popularly characterised as incompatible with a higher education founded on liberal values (eg O'Hear, 1988). However, this characterisation is based on macro-level perceptions of business and management studies which has failed to take account of the perspectives of business lecturers operating at the micro-level.
Engineers are dull conformists. Sociologists are very left wing. These, and other, caricatures of members of the higher education community are part of the rich array of stereotypes reported by Becher (1989). Caricatures are by definition recognisable but, at the same time, act as an unhelpful means of reinforcing our collective, and frequently ill-informed, preconceptions. Fine-grained studies which produce an "ethnography of the disciplines" (Geertz, 1976) and get beneath the surface of stereotyped imagery play a vital role in furthering our understanding of academic communities in higher education. Much of this work to date has focused on well established disciplines mainly associated with the work of elite institutions (Becher, 1989; Evans, 1988; 1993). Applied areas of the university curriculum, the contemporary choice of a higher proportion of students, have received rather less attention. This paper will concern itself with breaking down the stereotype which is associated with those teaching in the field of business and management studies and draws on depth interviews with university business lecturers in three higher education institutions.
Business and management studies is a comparative newcomer to UK higher education although it has a lengthy history at sub-degree level. The business studies degree emerged in the 1960s and was pioneered within the former polytechnic sector. Major expansion of business and management provision took place in the 1980s centring on both undergraduate business studies and the masters in business administration (MBA). This rapid growth has continued into the 1990s. Business and Administrative Studies is now the most popular area of undergraduate study in UK higher education 1 accounting for 18 per cent of all students at this level and a further 17 per cent of postgraduates (HESA, 1997).
In common with other emergent disciplines, business and management has faced a range of challenges to its legitimacy within higher education. These have included criticism of its research base (Weir, 1993; ESRC, 1994) and its lack of a distinct epistemological identity (O'Hear, 1988; Barnett, 1990). Other applied subjects, such as engineering, have faced similar challenges during their early development as an academic field (Wiener, 1980). However, unlike applied degrees in engineering, nursing or social work where a specific 'client' can be identified, business and management is not perceived as an emergent profession concerned with a social 'good'. While an ethical dimension is clearly associated with other professional fields, notably medicine and law, scepticism surrounds the relationship between business and ethics (Davies, 1993). Other 'minor' professions (Glazer, 1974) may share a limited research base and a low epistemological status but they are, at least, connected with a set of professional values and an ostensible concern for the betterment of the human condition.
Thus, business and management attracts a particular reputation which extends beyond criticism about intellectual coherence, a charge leveled against any number of emerging disciplines. This reputation centres on the perceived threat which business and management poses to academic freedom, one of the defining values of a British higher education (Barnett, 1990; NCIHE, 1997). There is a perception that business departments have close links with industry and commerce and a resulting suspicion that they act as a Trojan horse in introducing business values into higher education. Barnett (1990), for example, argues that business studies is wedded to the interests of the business community while O'Hear (1988) contends that business and management lecturers are apostles of free market values who undermine the autonomy of higher education. Squires (1990), in his study of undergraduate university education, goes as far as to assert that there is a mismatch "between instrumental means (more business studies graduates) and desirable ends (more happiness, justice, freedom)". Hence, business lecturers are associated with business values which for many critics are representative of the erosion of institutional autonomy and academic 'rule' (Moodie, 1996) as a constituent of academic freedom. Business and management is closely connected with the vocabulary of 'new managerialism'; free markets, customers and mission statements. The philosophy of the 'market' now plays a key role in higher education but is widely regarded within the sector as endangering academic values (Russell, 1993; Dearlove, 1995). In short, there is a sense of disjuncture between business lecturers, apparently acting as delegates for business values, and the established liberal values of the western university.
Thus, while engineers may be perceived as dull conformists and sociologists may be viewed as very left wing, business lecturers are seen as right wing apostles of commercial interests. However, this impression is based on macro-level perceptions of business as a subject area and does little to illuminate our understanding of business and management as an academic community. Any fine-grained understanding of this community must begin by examining where business lecturers come from.
Despite perceptions to the contrary, studies have shown that most business lecturers are career academics drawn from related cognate disciplines (Barry, 1989; Shaw, 1991; Macfarlane, 1997a). Only a minority have recent or substantial commercial experience (Macfarlane, 1997a). Indeed, it is unusual for a business lecturer to be pursuing both an academic and a commercial career simultaneously. Even the consultancy claims of business lecturers often mask a more mundane reality; working as external examiners or as part-time lecturers at other academic institutions (Cannon, 1992).
Although a growing number are teaching 'business' or 'management' there is essentially no such thing as a 'business' lecturer. The overwhelming majority of my interviewees were subject specialists in areas such as economics, accounting, marketing or law. Less than 17 per cent of business lecturers have a first degree in 'business' or 'management' (Macfarlane, 1997a) a figure which is not entirely surprising given the relatively short history of business studies at degree level. Lecturers are drawn from an eclectic range of first degree backgrounds ranging from science and engineering through to the humanities and social sciences. In Becher's (1989) terms, business and management is clearly a divergent rather than a convergent academic community. It is a loosely knit coalition lacking the common roots present in convergent communities. Lecturers derive their sense of identity from being 'economists', 'sociologists' or 'accountants'. Few think of themselves as 'business' lecturers per se. Business and management, therefore, needs to be understood as an umbrella for a number of academic tribes rather than a unified community sharing a "fraternal sense of nationhood" (Becher, 1989, p. 37).
In traditional and elite disciplinary communities there exists an expectation that those becoming lecturers are essentially students who have 'stayed on' to take a PhD after completing their first degree (Becher, 1989). This is the nature of the apprenticeship for English lecturers, for example (Evans, 1993). According to Becher (1989), the postgraduate period of research training is crucial to this socialisation process.
For a would-be academic, the process of developing that identity and commitment may well begin as an undergraduate, but is likely to be at its most intense at the postgraduate stage, culminating in the award of a doctorate and, for the chosen few, the first offer of employment as a faculty member.
Becher (1989) p. 25
Entry into elite academic communities is thus via a research training but this rite of passage sharply contrasts with routes into the business and management community in higher education. From my interviews with lecturers it became clear that there were three distinct, and often circuitous, routes of entry into the business and management community.
A large number of lecturers have entered business and management as a 'refugee' from a neighbouring academic community but still essentially teach their original specialist discipline. Their departure from their tribal base has been enforced by a range of circumstances. Economists are perhaps the best example of academic refugees within business and management. Indeed, many business degrees originated in departments of economics in the 1960s (Healey, 1993). However, the subsequent decline in the number of students studying economics relative to business and management has led to the enforced migration of many economics lecturers into the fold of newly established business schools. Unlike most other business lecturers, it is highly probable that lecturers in economics will have a matching first degree (Macfarlane, 1997a). Their reasons for migrating varied. Some were 'political' refugees, in the sense that their departure from an economics department was connected with holding unconventional views in opposition to what Becher terms the 'fundamental ideology' of the discipline. Others had migrated due to more prosaic reasons connected with faculty re-organisation. One economist I interviewed contended that some lecturers in economics had been forced to abandon 'serious' economics due to their shortcomings as researchers.
Despite enforced migration, these economists retain a distinct sense of disciplinary identity. Most of my interviewees would have preferred to be teaching on an economics degree and were concerned that their discipline played only a 'bite size' role within most business programmes. This means that economists act as staunch defenders of their discipline in the context of curriculum design and development. Moreover, these refugees will often try to continue to carry out research in their own disciplinary field. This might partly explain why research in business and management continues to underperform in comparison with nearly all its allied disciplinary fields (THES, 1996).
Other refugees have entered business and management directly from business practice. Unsurprisingly, these business refugees tend to be more likely to teach applied subjects such as accountancy, management or corporate strategy which closely match their previous experience as a practitioner (Macfarlane, 1997b). For these individuals academic life is a second career and very few possess the same level of commitment to particular disciplinary interests. Simon (1976), in a study of American business schools, considers what would motivate someone with commercial experience to seek an academic career. He identifies that those seeking a new career in a business school are either young, having attained relatively modest management experience, or nearing retirement and unable to keep up with the demands of management practice. As a result, Simon (1976) argues that successful transfers from the world of business practice are very rare since younger refugees bring little business experience and older ones "suffer the illusion that good business teaching consists of telling the boys how I did it'" (p 343). Only exceptionally will someone from a substantive commercial background have "an affinity for things intellectual" (p 343). Simon's scepticism with regard to the value of business practitioners is beyond the scope of this study. However, his assertion that they will either have very substantial or negligible experience mirrored the background profiles of my business refugees.
When interviewing business lecturers I was struck by how many would describe themselves as 'oddballs' or 'misfits'. They were often somewhat embarrassed to admit, when asked to talk me through their careers, that their first (and sometimes higher) degree bore little relationship to what they were now teaching as a business lecturer. These individuals have changed the long-term direction of their career in order to survive in a turbulent and increasingly market-driven higher education system. Unlike the refugees, these 'nomads' have converted themselves from a lecturer in one discipline into a specialist in a quite different subject. For some of these nomads their conversion was a carefully plotted career move to avoid the perils of remaining in a declining (eg sociology, economics) and/or more highly competitive academic community. These individuals have re-invented their careers and moved into newly emerging and highly popular subjects, such as marketing or management. Many former economists, for example, have converted themselves into marketing specialists (Macfarlane, 1997a) or accountants (Shaw, 1991) while a number of lecturers originally trained as sociologists are now working in the broad management field. These nomads are pragmatic opportunists who have spotted the signs of a declining market and moved into an emerging discipline.
While some nomads have taken control of their careers with an eye to the future others have been forced by circumstances to abandon their original discipline. I found that a large number of lecturers teaching business subjects such as organisational behaviour, marketing or human resource management had a first degree in sociology or a related social science. When interviewed though many of these lecturers emphasised that they still regarded themselves, first and foremost, as 'sociologists' or 'psychologists'. These lecturers are teaching an applied subject within the business curriculum but are essentially career academics with a disciplinary background in a more traditional area of knowledge. Although for some their original discipline provides a theoretical underpinning for at least part of their new specialism, for many this new teaching role creates a crisis of identity since they may have limited interest in the subject matter or sympathy with its fundamental ideology. Nomads are understandably envious of refugees who are still able to teach their original academic discipline, albeit perhaps in an amended context. Nomads regard academic refugees, such as economists, with a mixture of envy and admiration that they have been able to retain control of their distinct disciplinary identity.
The 'servicing' of business programmes by academic staff from other academic sections of the university is heavily relied upon by many business and management departments. Academic staff from departments such as languages, social science, mathematics, and computing or information technology (IT) are regular contributors to business degrees working as specialist linguists, behavioural psychologists, statisticians or IT lecturers. These lecturers are essentially 'tourists' in the sense that they are citizens of a separate organisational and disciplinary culture working on temporary assignment outside their 'home' department. However, unlike many refugees and nomads, I found that most tourists do not regard their disciplinary values as under such serious threat since they are still spending most of their time teaching on their specialist degree programmes in modern languages or mathematics.
Linguists are frequently called upon to work as tourists. While refugee economists expressed concern that the economics content of a business degree was being 'watered down', linguists, working as tourists, were more pragmatic. They accepted the need to teach in a quite different way on a business degree than they would when contributing to a modern languages programme. While they were prepared to focus on the essentials of basic communication as a 'business' lecturer, they would emphasise other qualities such as accuracy and elegance of style as a 'modern languages' lecturer. The more limited expectations which these linguists had of business students were in contrast with the frustration expressed by many refugees who were trying to carry the torch of their discipline, and convey the richness of its theoretical base, entirely within the context of a business degree. Tourists can teach on a business degree with the full knowledge that their disciplinary values are still secure in their 'home' department. However, a lecturer who begins a relationship with business and management as a tourist may later take up permanent residence as a refugee and it is possible that linguists may become more defensive about their disciplinary values if faced with the prospect of a business-only teaching timetable. Indeed, many economists began their relationship with business and management studies as tourists only to be subsequently absorbed into a business school. The rapid expansion of business and management during the 1980s and 1990s has converted former tourists into new refugees.
Business and management is thus essentially a hotchpotch of tribal interests. Business lecturers have often experienced a winding career path rather than a 'straight road' (Wiener, 1996) from PhD to lectureship in a convergent academic community. Many nomads I spoke to left me with the clear impression that teaching on a business degree can pose a serious conflict of loyalty between the values of the applied subject they now teach and their disciplinary roots. However, this sense of disjuncture is not necessarily unique to business lecturers. I suspect the terms 'refugee', 'nomad', and 'tourist', used to describe patterns of migration among business lecturers, may have resonance for other academic communities especially ones in applied and professional fields.
Given the diverse nature of the business and management community, it is not surprising that their views on pedagogy and knowledge reflect a range of perspectives which defies any macro-level stereotype. On the basis of the interviews I conducted with business lecturers a range of attitudes emerged providing a richer understanding of their core beliefs.
Although business lecturers are in general agreement that their purpose is to prepare students to enter commercial careers they are divided on how this can best be achieved. Some lecturers expressed their primary pedagogic aim in terms of inculcating a body of knowledge and skills. These lecturers, who I have termed 'pragmatic synthesisers', focused on the importance of students learning certain knowledge 'inputs'. Many also stressed the importance of business skills covering aspects such as communication, presentation, team working and advanced computer literacy. This combination of knowledge and skills would form a generic 'tool kit' and help to prepare students for a range of different business careers. They would be suitably equipped to solve work-based problems drawing on their bank of knowledge and skills.
By contrast, other lecturers argued that their principal aim was to produce students capable of evaluating knowledge critically rather than simply acquiring knowledge and skills for immediate workplace application. For these lecturers, who I have termed 'critical evaluators', being 'critical' meant getting students to challenge assumptions and received wisdom in the existing knowledge base and, more broadly, thinking reflectively about the wider business context with its attendant political and ethical issues. For these lecturers getting students to 'think critically' implied raising fundamental questions about the nature of business knowledge or its relationship with society whereas 'pragmatic synthesisers' interpret this phrase in terms of making students better problem-solvers by reference to the existing pool of knowledge. This dichotomy with respect to pedagogic philosophy is illustrated through the contrasting comments of two of my interviewees:
You cannot reduce it down to teaching them (ie the students) about business because if you're going to be critical, if you are going to be able to think, you have to start off with those things which criticise the way in which you think
A subject like business studies is very much an applied subject. It's not academic.
Another key dilemma for business lecturers is the extent to which the curriculum should respond to knowledge which is developing in the "context of application" (Gibbons et al, 1994). Some business lecturers are firmly committed to an established body of disciplinary knowledge whereas others believe it is important for the curriculum to respond rapidly to emergent knowledge and practice in the business environment. Those with what I have termed a 'context-dependent' attitude to knowledge argue that the raison d'etre of a business education should be to reflect and keep apace with developments and new thinking concerning business practice. However, other lecturers have a 'context-independent' attitude to knowledge. They are sceptical of the long-term value of 'new' business knowledge, the validity of which might be conjunctual to a particular social and cultural environment and/or temporary economic conditions. Examples cited of 'new' business knowledge subject to these forces included 'Total Quality Management' and 'Japanese Management'. This issue poses a particular problem for nomads who are teaching a functional specialism, such as human resource management or marketing. I found that many of these individuals held a context-independent attitude to knowledge but were required to pay close attention to practitioner-based developments some of which they scornfully rejected as short-term 'fads'.
Lecturers were clearly divided on the issue of whether academic knowledge should be shaped or resistant to emerging knowledge in the business context as illustrated by the following comments:
Students should be emulating what is happening in industry.
(Information Technology Lecturer)
I would try to bring it (ie the curriculum) back to the study of disciplines which are useful in business as opposed to a set of spurious disciplines about something which is changing from day to day.
The figure below summarises the differences outlined above on the basis of both pedagogic and epistemological philosophy.
The four positions mapped may be explained in more detail.
This position conforms most readily to the stereotype of the business lecturer in higher education concerned with rudimentary transmission, rather than providing a liberal education, and sympathetic to tailoring the curriculum in response to the perceived or expressed needs of employers. This type of business education involves students synthesising knowledge in a subject area where what counts as knowledge is largely determined by the context in which it is applied. Lecturers may generally (but not always) have a stronger allegiance to the business context rather than a body of disciplinary knowledge and believe that the best way of preparing students to enter business is by keeping them up-to-date with contextual developments in practice. Teaching strategies emphasise the absorption of current knowledge and selection from this knowledge pool to solve practitioner-based problems. A number of refugees from business careers might be placed in this category. Tourists working in business and management, such as the linguists, also indicated that they were prepared to transmit knowledge on the basis of practical business needs but they would probably not adopt this pedagogic philosophy in relation to students undertaking a specialist degree. In the broader context of business education, National Vocational Qualifications, based on the 'functional analysis' of job tasks, implicitly endorses an uncritical acceptance of the primacy of knowledge derived from business practice and excludes the possibility of critical reflection.
Knowledge which forms the basis of certain subjects within the business curriculum may be determined, prima facie, to a substantial extent by the business context. Subjects such as marketing and human resource management 'correspond', although not exclusively, to parallel business functions within organisations. Government intervention plays a significant role in the shaping and re-shaping of aspects of knowledge in industrial relations, law and accountancy. In this sense, some subjects are led by a changing business environment more than others (eg statistics or economic theory). However, lecturers teaching more context-dependent areas of the curriculum may be 'critical evaluators'. This is more likely to take the form of raising questions connected with "contextual awareness" (Brookfield, 1987) about the relationship between business and society as there may be limited scope to debate the assumptions of subject knowledge in highly applied areas of the curriculum. Nomads with a first degree in a discipline such as sociology or politics, who find themselves teaching a context-dependent subject, such as marketing or human resource management, are particularly likely to espouse this approach to pedagogy.
Knowledge in the business curriculum may also be derived from a largely disciplinary context with indirect, rather than direct, correspondence to the business context. Knowledge which has universal rules of application regardless of environmental conditions has been termed 'subject-dependent' (Corder, 1990). This 'subject-dependent' knowledge, such as statistics or quantitative analysis, plays a central role in nearly all business programmes. The essence of this knowledge does not evolve in relation to business practice. Although particular quantitative techniques may go in and out of fashion, this knowledge is 'context-independent'. It is widely taught outside the confines of a business degree in departments of mathematics and engineering. Some lecturers in these subject areas, in common with a number of lecturers in more context-dependent knowledge, approach pedagogy on the basis of a pragmatic synthesis. Quantitative specialists contributing to business programmes may, like linguists, be working as tourists and prepared to compromise their pedagogic expectations given their limited role within the curriculum.
Finally, other lecturers in context-independent areas, especially refugees from economics or other social sciences, adopt a critical approach to their pedagogic role. These lecturers are less likely to have business experience and are more likely to be career academics having spent their lives in higher education institutions. As refugees their first degrees will match or closely mirror their teaching specialism. These lecturers commonly justify their pedagogic philosophy on the basis of a post-Fordist analysis of the needs of the economy. They claim that graduates able to think critically about knowledge claims will cope and adapt more readily in a turbulent business environment than students without these transferable intellectual qualities. As these lecturers are teaching well established disciplines which exist independently of a business degree their approach to pedagogy is often described in terms of encouraging discussion about the integrity of knowledge claims although this does not exclude raising 'contextual awareness' about business practice.
As with all stereotypes the one associated with the business lecturer in higher education breaks down on closer inspection. I found very little evidence to support the notion that business lecturers in higher education are keen to tailor the curriculum to meet the 'needs' of employers, however this phrase may be defined. Most of my interviewees were critical of employers in some way with a number arguing that representatives of commercial organisations often lacked the requisite status, ability or qualifications to intervene in any competent manner in the educational process or the construction of the curriculum. The notion that 'academic rule' (Moodie, 1996), in determining what goes into the curriculum, is in a serious sense being undermined by business lecturers appears ill-founded. The fact that business and management is not directly relevant to any specific occupational or professional context means there is little direct involvement in the curriculum from government, professional or employer organisations (Boys, 1988). Academics, despite modularisation, still enjoy a relatively free hand in constructing and re-constructing the curriculum which means that academic knowledge rather than knowledge from the context of application will continue to play a more significant role in the business curriculum.
Moreover, inquiring into the core beliefs of business lecturers demonstrated that many are committed to pedagogic principles in common with other lecturers in higher education (Nixon, 1996). A large proportion of business lecturers want students to reflect on knowledge claims in academic disciplines and/or to become 'contextually aware' of the relationship between business and society. In short, they want students to think critically; an aim which, according to Barnett (1990) is the essence of a 'higher' education. While a commitment to a critical pedagogy is not a goal shared by all business educators it is clearly a more mainstream perspective than may previously have been acknowledged.
Business and management studies has been characterised as a Trojan horse for importing business values into higher education, short-changing students on an intellectual level and posing a threat to the liberal values of the university. The evidence from my interviews suggests that these claims are largely exaggerated. While business and management, along with other ostensibly vocational areas of the university curriculum, has played a significant role in the recent expansion of UK higher education, this does not automatically imply that core values, such as academic freedom, are endangered. The study of business may not be compatible with a classical definition of a liberal education as one concerned with the 'disinterested pursuit of knowledge'. However, there is no reason why a business education cannot provide students with an emancipatory educational experience, making, to paraphrase R.S. Peters (1977), students capable of approaching what they are told critically. Business lecturers are exercised about social and ethical issues in relation to business practice and are not apostles of free market capitalism seeking to slavishly promote 'business' values. Although unrestrained market forces became the dominant economic ideology of the 1980s (Lawton, 1989), and is rapidly becoming the creed of higher education, lecturers in business are largely academics rather than uncritical advocates of free market capitalism. While there may be increasing emphasis on market direction within the higher education system, at the macro-level, this should not be confused with the business curriculum and the pedagogy of lecturers at the micro-level.
The growth of business and management studies is part of a broader trend towards vocational courses in a rapidly changing higher education landscape. However, the nature of the academic community has not altered as dramatically as the new system-wide emphasis on vocationalism may suggest. The micro-level reality is that business programmes are still predominantly staffed by multi-disciplinary teams largely committed to the maintenance of academic freedom and a critical pedagogy. This reality calls into question how meaningful it is to use the terms 'academic' and 'vocational'. This stark dichotomy, which was formalised by Robbins, still persists as part of the 'commonsense' language of higher education. While Dearing (NCIHE, 1997) recognised that an academic education may prepare students for employment, there is no mention in the report of the opposite side of this equation; that, to paraphrase Pring (1995), the vocationally useful may also be taught in a liberal way. This study has indicated that many business lecturers share a similar vision.
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1 With the exception of the amorphous 'Combined Studies' category
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