Reaching All Students: Business School's Responsibility to Society

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017
By Giselle Weybrecht
Image via iStock
What can be done to reach students who have set interests in sustainability and ethics topics, as well as those who don't?

Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Australia has released its most recent survey, which includes students’ views of sustainability and management education that have been collected since 2011. As with many surveys relating to management education and sustainability, the positives are highlighted up front. Ninety-two percent of students felt the overall effectiveness of a business can be determined to a great extent by the degree to which it is ethical and socially responsible, and 55 percent reported to have been educated about business ethics to a very good degree.

It is always reassuring to read that growing numbers of students are interested in these topics. And while it’s reassuring, it also should be expected, given the increasing importance of these topics in the wider business—and non-business—world. It also is reassuring to hear that students are requesting, receiving, and driving greater numbers of initiatives and opportunities to engage in sustainability. Many schools will tell you that it is in fact their students who are the key drivers of efforts, putting in place events, contests, partnerships, and even new course development focused on these topics—an evolution that should be shared and celebrated.

But let’s, for a moment, take an opposite view of the developments. As you continue to put in additional programs and initiatives with the words “sustainability” and “ethics” in them and further develop your sustainability champions—whether they are students, faculty, or staff—let’s not forget those who are not being reached, those choosing not to engage in these discussions, and even those being left behind altogether. The United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) focus on this idea of leaving no one behind, ensuring that we not only push forward but also raise the minimum level of engagement in sustainability issues. In other words, we are only as good as our “weakest” player. This view is worth remembering when it comes to ethics and sustainability in business schools as well. Do you have students on the unconcerned end of the spectrum, and what are you doing to engage them and move them forward?

Students Being Reached, But Then What?

It is encouraging that one in five students say they would sacrifice 40 percent or more of their future salary to work for a company that demonstrates several aspects of corporate social responsibility. But at the same time, 49 percent of respondents said they felt that earning a lot of money post-graduation was between very important and absolutely essential. Which is the hope and which is the reality? Are they both possible together? How do you prepare students to not only be able to identify those companies but have the tools to make these sorts of decisions? And when they start working, are they being prepared to apply the knowledge that they are learning within these companies? Seventeen percent felt that they were not equipped to apply knowledge of responsible management in real life, while 28 percent of students wanted more information and guidance on sustainability topics.

Students Not Being Reached

Not all students need to become sustainability champions, but they do all need to graduate with some basic knowledge and skills related to how the business world connects to, impacts, and is impacted by the external environment, whether through social, environmental, or economic factors. According to the survey, 11 to 16 percent of students said they had not learned about these topics at all. Thirty-four percent had not learned about environmental sustainability, 39 percent had not been exposed to lessons on human rights, 44 percent are not learning about the Sustainable Development Goals, and over 50 percent aren’t learning about the UN and international organizations, conventions, and treaties.

Students Being Left Behind

But the group that is often forgotten about, that should be highlighted, is the group of students who are perhaps being left behind altogether. Twenty-four percent of students who responded to the survey felt there was already too much emphasis on sustainability and ethics within the business school curriculum, and 9 percent felt that schools shouldn’t teach students about sustainability at all. Twenty-five percent felt that only ways maximize shareholder value should be taught in a business degree. When asked whether they felt a company should focus on profit only and could bend or break rules to get that profit, 33 percent of students agreed with this statement.

The numbers of students being missed or left behind will inevitably vary from school to school, but the point is that these numbers, the flip side of the positive statistics showing all those students who are interested, deserve equal consideration from faculty, staff, and even students who are pushing sustainability forward and interested in quality education. Here are five pieces of advice to keep in mind as you continue to further sustainability efforts and broaden your reach to even more students:

  1. Make sure that what you are teaching is useful and relevant. Just because you have initiatives with the word sustainability in them doesn’t mean those initiatives are reaching students effectively.
  2. Go beyond using the term sustainability in isolation and really dive into specific issues as they relate to business, finance, marketing, and more. The topic needs to be broken down into its individual parts for a more targeted response and put into a context that students can use going forward.
  3. Help show students what the options are for putting their interests into practice in any career. Engage career services not to separate out sustainability careers but to show how sustainability is connected to all careers.
  4. Explore the broader institution’s practices and the campus environment to ensure there are no lessons and messages that undermine or contradict teachings about sustainability and ethics. The same goes for faculty and staff and the way the school is operated.
  5. Usually there is a small core group of students and faculty engaged in these topics. Explore ways to engage a wider group, collaborating across disciplines, courses, and clubs rather than separating sustainability initiatives out.

As we are increasingly seeing, one person can have a huge impact, both positive and negative, in business and in society more generally. Celebrate and empower your champions, but prepare the rest to support those champions and not undermine them.

Giselle Weybrecht
Author, Advisor, and Speaker, Sustainability and Business
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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