Should We Give Business School Students What They Want or What They Need?

By Kimmo Alajoutsijärvi, Julie Davies, and Kerttu Kettunen
February 13, 2017

Should We Give Business StudentsUniversities are the world’s longest-standing (and thus, arguably highly valued and flexible) organizations. Frank Donoghue in The Last Professors notes a Carnegie Foundation finding that only 66 institutions have operated continuously since 1530: in addition to the Icelandic and Isle of Man Parliaments, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Lutheran Church, 62 of these were universities. Thanks to their ability to adapt to social changes, some of the world’s most prestigious universities in Bologna, Oxford, and Paris have been operating successfully since the 11th and 12th centuries. While the history of university-based business schools is much shorter, the oldest of them have been around for 150 years.

For higher education in this century, adaptability means managerialism, marketization, and corporatization. The founding ideals of the university as a force for public good seem to be fading rapidly into the annals of history. In the current highly competitive environment, we ask whether business schools are still doing well by doing good. Or, are we colluding with what students want (high grades, no fails) to make time for what we want (publishing, less hassle)? Are we really challenging our students and making them struggle? To what extent are we inculcating civic values and social justice?

Following Prahald and Hamel’s old truth about business firms, we argue that there are essentially three kinds of business schools:

  1. Business schools that take their students where students don't want to go
  2. Business schools that take their students where students say they want to go
  3. Business schools that take their students where ultimately students realize they need to go, although the students don't yet grasp this

Joseph Wharton’s late-19th-century vision to produce graduates who would subsequently become “pillars of the state, whether in private or in public life,” is being replaced today by Ginsberg’s notion of the “all-administrative” university or even by profit-seeking corporate universities. Key performance indicators of productivity, measured excellence, and satisfying fee-payers of a student experience are the language of shopping malls. In countries favoring market liberalism in higher education, this is lived reality. The knee-jerk response has been for many universities to be transformed into agile, student-centered service organizations. Students are empowered as tuition-paying customers to vote with their feelings and feet, for instant gratification rather than long-term intellectual gain. All too often, students are beguiled by a professor’s charm, the entertainment value of a lecture, “seven steps to heaven” type checklists, and just passing a class quiz from one week to the next. The provision of commodified content, canned PowerPoint presentations, and a focus on achieving individualized student satisfaction means anything beyond direct transactional value may be discarded as worthless. The resulting model of the business school is at its worst starting to look more like a holiday resort and diploma mill, where learning (not learning from failure) is optional.

In adapting to competitive pressures, in other words, business schools have adopted the following strategies:

  1. Misleading and unfulfilling marketing-type promises, like some corporate universities have done
  2. Child minding and child pleasing, i.e., spoon feeding, the reality in many all-administrative universities
  3. Challenge-and-stretch "tough love," the character-nourishing experiences that students eventually come to thank us for but probably do not appreciate at the time

The real problem with an overly customer-centered approach to higher education is that it replaces the notions of universities as agoras for critical thinking, debate, and pillars of a democratic society.

To be brutally honest, most young high school graduates are adolescents and clueless about what it actually takes to become a practicing manager and reflective practitioner. In market rhetoric, students are “uninformed customers” incapable of evaluating the quality of teaching and the returns on their investment for expensive fees.

We argue that the business schools with the best long-term student satisfaction and societal impact are those that allow their students to be students, not customers. This is accomplished best by business schools that are both timeless and timely, demanding and flexible, and managerially relevant while academically rigorous. For business school faculty, this is a call for passionate scholarship that involves intellectually challenging discovery research, co-creative engagement with business practice, and responsible academic citizenship. From our schools’ administrators, it demands perseverance to avoid short-cuts and quick fixes, and to value farsightedness to distinguish meaningful learning from what immediately attracts high ratings.

The model of a university-based business school as a force for public good is far too valuable to be sacrificed in a race for efficiencies and TripAdvisor-type ratings. It should be our shared mission to take our students where only later will they realize they need to be.


Kimmo AlajoutsijrviKimmo Alajoutsijärvi is a professor of marketing at Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics in Finland.

Julie DaviesJulie Davies is an HR subject group leader at the University of Huddersfield Business School in the U.K.

Kerttu KettunenKerttu Kettunen is a postdoctoral research fellow and AACSB accreditation manager at Turku School of Economics in Finland.