Since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, public trust in business education has been falling. At the UTS Business School though, academics like Natalia Nikolova and Walter Jarvis have been reimagining contemporary business education. They’re moving away from teaching practices that institutionalise greed and towards those that foster moral accountability and public trust.
The concepts of ‘business’ and ‘moral accountability’ don’t always go hand in hand, but a postgraduate subject in the UTS Business School is pushing students to put their views on ethics front and centre.
The subject Managing, Leading and Stewardship (MLS) is the brainchild of Business School Senior Lecturer Natalia Nikolova and Lecturer Walter Jarvis. “It foregrounds the stewardship of public trust in challenging students to make, defend and be morally accountable for their judgements and to guide others to meet collective responsibility in morally challenging situations,” explains Jarvis.
It challenges students to make, defend and be morally accountable for their judgements
The course content responds to what Jarvis and Nikolova see as a global shift, over the last 30 to 40 years, which has entrenched a neo-liberalist approach to business – one that reduces business to incentivising and prizing shareholder profits over everything else.
“We’re not anti-globalisation,” says Jarvis, “but neo-liberalism champions globalisation in that it seeks to find the lowest cost opportunity for creating value. In other words, it doesn’t give too much credence to alternative perspectives other than the shareholder.”
Both Jarvis and Nikolova, who have been collaborating since 2013, believe passionately in a business system that recognises the importance of all business stakeholders – customers, suppliers, employees, the community and government – and the responsibility that businesses have to recognise and respond to broader and deeper societal needs. Such systems, though, are more likely to be found in some parts of Europe than in the US or Australia.
“A stakeholder approach to business and economics generally says that all these different groups have stakes in companies, in organisations – they all have needs and expectations, and then businesses have to try to accommodate those, rather than focus singularly and simplistically on one stakeholder, which in neo-liberalism is the shareholder,” says Nikolova.
These values are reflected heavily in the MLS curriculum. And they are, in part, a response to the growing public distrust of business schools and management education precipitated by the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.
MLS is compulsory for students studying the Master of Business Administration or Master of Management program. It pushes students to think critically and reflectively about their professional practice and their responsibilities and accountabilities as UTS graduates, not just about how they can deliver on corporately mandated key performance indicators.
“What we’re doing is preparing them to realise that they, as an individual, as a graduate with a higher education qualification, will need to accept responsibility for the judgements they make,” Jarvis says.
“We question and challenge the role of the charismatic leader, we champion the notion of the follower, and the responsibilities of followers and citizens to hold leaders to account.”
To do this, Jarvis and Nikolova have developed a series of tailored activities that are based on principles of active and experiential learning – students learn what it’s like to be in commonplace situations, recreating, discussing and critiquing a series of real-world business problems in order to understand them at a human level.
In week one, for example, they’re asked to interview the person next to them and get to know everything they can about that person’s life – their background, fears and dreams. After building a personal connection, they are then abruptly told to role-play some challenging events they might face in the workplace.
In another lesson, after watching Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, they’re asked to imagine being young traders who’ve been told to do something they know is wrong. The students are then asked to reflect on their options and choices, becoming aware of the ‘slippery slope’ nature of arguments and decisions when facing pressure.
One key activity, based on a real-life event, recreates a sudden and unexpected factory closure in regional Australia – the result of a cost-cutting directive from the overseas parent company. Students are asked to take on different roles, such as the managing director, factory manager, and the now-jobless employees, and try to imagine and then play out their responses. The activity is followed by an in-depth discussion about managerial responsibility, alternative and broader perspectives.
William Bruce is a Master of Sport Management student who took MLS last year. He played the manager when his class did the factory role-play, and says the experience made him think carefully about his professional responsibilities.
“The pressure from above can really push a manager to make a decision they don’t want to, and I think the learning was you’ve got to try your best to say ‘no’ if you feel like your ethics are being compromised,” he says.
For their work, Nikolova and Jarvis received a 2016 UTS Learning and Teaching Citation for ‘cultivating moral accountability (stewardship) and self-reflection’ in the classroom. Despite the challenges of opening students’ eyes to such a vastly different approach – the duo are often met with opposition in the early weeks of the course – the subject is clearly changing hearts and minds once the learning experiences sink in.
“We have a lot of former students saying that they’ve taken these types of insights and used them in future practices. We’ve had students who have come back to us to tell us about the changes they have started making in their workplaces,” Nikolova says.
Master of Engineering Management and Master of Business Administration graduate Monica George is one of those students.
“In my business practice, my role requires me to be ethically correct and customer-centric simultaneously,” she says. “And this course made me aware of how I need to meet and exceed the expectations of all stakeholders in the business, including society. We need to be accountable. It’s just good practice.”