The competition fetish in business schools: Challenges and responses

Business Schools exist in a world with deepening social, economic, cultural and political fractures. These include an exponential growth in inequality, the return of absolute poverty and growing fault lines between those who have secure employment, those who work in precarious conditions, and those who are excluded. Migration caused by war and poverty has led to large-scale suffering. Social solidarity within and across countries has been undermined, leading to rising xenophobia. In addition, urgent action is needed to protect the planet. Business Schools thus exist in a context that is divided by material and symbolic barriers where democracy is under threat.

Business schools, as institutions that are both nationally anchored and globally linked, with connections to business, government and civil society have the potential to play an important part in responding to these catastrophes and contributing to the greater good. However, while there are many opportunities, there are also obstacles. One such obstacle is the competition fetish (Naidoo, 2018). By this, we mean that business schools appear to be trapped in a modern-day magical belief that competition will provide the solution to all problems. Competition is expected to enhance quality in research and teaching and lead to real-world impact.

Different types of competition have been unleashed on universities with even greater competition in Business Schools (Krücken, 2021). These include quasi-market competition through which research and teaching is increasingly commodified for the purposes of income generation and government-sponsored competition, generally termed ‘excellence policies’ where the core political aim is to identify world-class performance to provide positional advantage for global competition. In addition, status competition, such as rankings through which business schools shape speculative value reign supreme. The various types of competition reinforce or displace one another or combine into new hybrid forms.

Competition is so powerful because it is fused with what Pierre Bourdieu has called doxa, which is an unquestionable orthodoxy that operates as if it were the objective truth (Bourdieu, 1988). Competition is deeply inscribed as common sense and as central to democracy. Competition is positioned as legitimate and just, resting on the assumption that all participants have an equal opportunity at the outset. Emotions reside in the heart of competition, producing an affective politics of naming, shaming and faming through which the fear of shame and the thrill of fame ignite strong competitive desires (Brogger 2016). In addition, forms of competition such as rankings rest on academic values that are upheld by the most powerful actors in the institutional field, with a clear interest in protecting the criteria that maintain these actors and institutions in positions of power (Enders, 2015).

Clearly, not all forms of competition are negative. There is substantial evidence that competition amongst researchers has led to major advances in research and that cognitive sense-making and sharing can build cognitive communities in research (Cattani et al, 2017). Meritocracy is fairer as a selection mechanism than criteria based on political affiliation or wealth. However, competition unthinkingly deployed everywhere can lead to negative consequences, which act as barriers to business schools contributing to the greater good. In the next sections, we will outline some of the negative consequences of hyper-competition on research and education.

Research competition

The varieties of competition contributing to the fetishization of research have the potential to colonise epistemic frameworks. The strong link to reputational and financial rewards directs attention to what is deemed important and deflects attention away from what is not. In other words, competition is influential in defining the essence of research in business schools.

Scholarly competition based on peer review is a crucial mechanism to test and progress scholarship in the field of management studies and to build a common knowledge base for field advancement. However, other forms of competition interact in important ways with scholarly competition. Quasi-market competition, which leads to close links between business schools and corporations can provide mutual benefit. However, there is the danger that a primary focus on the profit potential of research can push economic interest to override research undertaken for the public good. For example, the global financial and economic crisis has revealed the enmeshment of business schools with the ideologies of neo-classical economics and managerialism (Locke and Spender, 2011). Pressures for quick results from corporate sponsors may lead to tensions with the wider good; and patent agreements which prohibit dissemination to the research community can weaken the global knowledge commons.

Research excellence contests provide transparency in funding distribution, help business schools refine research strategy and develop mechanisms to enhance quality. However, there are also unintended effects. Scholars such as Kehm (2013) have shown how the German Excellence Initiative has resulted in more stratification, a downgrading of teaching and an additional administrative burden. There are also critiques that research excellence frameworks militate against ‘blue skies’ research, encourage dubious research tactics for maximizing citations (Alvesson et al, 2017). Rankings, too, are embedded in the business school ecosystem and work by abstracting institutions from their socio-political and economic contexts to construct a hierarchical ordering of institutions; with significant rewards and punishment (Wedlin, 2011). The high visibility of rankings construct a template of success, exerting pressures for compliance on different types of Business Schools across the world.

Excellence contests combine with rankings and a citation and publishing industry to construct standardised worldwide measures to access the quality of business school research. While this has the potential to create explicit, globally acknowledged measures of quality in management studies, there are also pitfalls. It has been persuasively demonstrated, for example, that the globally acknowledged ‘top tier’ list of journals is, in reality, mainly an American list cloaked as a global list drawing primarily on American data for an American audience. For example, the FT50 set of journal rankings is dominated by top US journals because of historical US influences and the dominance of the US paradigm in management education and research. Angus Laing (2022) has referred to perceived inbuilt biases of journal guides which rate which journals anchored in the positivistic American tradition more highly than those emanating from the more interpretivist European management research tradition. Adverse implications include the discounting of research in languages other than English, a devaluing of scholarly monographs and a disincentive to develop high-impact, relevant research for non-American contexts. These narrow competitive mechanisms have the potential to reduce theoretical innovation in management studies as a result of closing down diversity. In terms of real-world impact, research responding to the concerns of the powerful in rich countries is privileged, while the crises facing the majority of the world’s population living in low-income countries receive less attention (Nkomo, 2017).

Given the increasingly inter-related crises facing the world, this is a situation in which the examination of the diversity of Business School models in developing and emerging markets is critical: country culture and context are critically important. This requires both competition and collaboration processes within regions, for example, in the different regions of Africa and Latin America (see Thomas et al., 2016, 2017 and Alvarado et al., 2017). This allows the sharing of curricula and research approaches that enhance the collective know-how of Deans in these regions.

Hyper-competition in education

Business School education has come under increasing scrutiny as a result of recent corporate crises in the context of the global economic and climate crisis and in recognition of the pivotal position and authority of students as future generations of managers.

The reconceptualisation of students as consumers of higher education in the context of hyper-competition; and the positioning of business schools as high-income generating units has had both positive and negative impacts. Consumer mechanisms empower students through better information on course content, and greater transparency in relation to criteria and methods for assessment. More robust complaints and redress mechanisms afford students protection, and the public availability of data from student satisfaction surveys empowers students to control elements of their learning. However, there are also negative effects. Students who internalise a consumer identity may perceive themselves as passive and entitled consumers, abdicate their own responsibility for learning and confuse a momentary satisfaction of wants with educational outcomes (Naidoo et al., 2011). Consistent with this mentality is a resistance to expanding their horizons and engaging in education that is not directly assessed. Under these conditions, the student disposition generated has negative ramifications for the development of higher-order skills and, more importantly, for the dispositions and attitudes required for autonomous, lifelong learning.

In addition, business schools are under pressure to adhere to the criteria of major rankings such as the Financial Times, particularly in relation to the MBA programme. These rankings are based primarily on employability criteria such as career progression and salary increase. In this sense, commercial values become fundamentally important, compromising high-level learning, responsibility for society etc. In this way, business schools ‘ abdicated [the] role of scientific, objective observers of business who are willing to engage in public discourse from the perspective of society as a whole’ (Trank and Rynes, 2003, p. 199). An MBA becomes a value proposition primarily as a path to career security and financial riches.

This raises two main problems. First, while students are likely to demand education that links in a direct manner to employment, the rise of platform capitalism, artificial intelligence and technological developments make labour markets increasingly uncertain. Given current political trends, barely-regulated predatory capitalism combining with right-wing movements has the potential to deepen divisions amongst exploited and disadvantaged communities (for example, between white and black working-class young people) through the manufacturing of fear, the inscription of hyper-competition and the spread of disinformation. We are thus likely to enter a highly volatile context with accelerating violence and an environmental emergency. In this context viewing Business School education primarily as a lever for employment reeks of irresponsibility.

At the same time, there is welcome evidence from contemporary surveys of students (for example, the Aspen Institute) that there is a student-led demand to embed people and planet issues in the curriculum. A broad, interdisciplinary, critical education which is not measured solely through market verification and student satisfaction may thus be viable in giving students the skills and the dispositions for lifelong learning and for enhanced careers as ethical, skilled and trustworthy managers. In addition, the incorporation of advanced leadership and management training to decarbonise the world and protect other sustainability goals is essential and may contribute to increases in high skilled labour demand.

Looking to the future

How should Business Schools respond to these great challenges? How do Business School leaders face the formidable task of mediating between a complex internal environment with powerful professional autonomy and strong disciplinary allegiances while responding to competing external demands from governments, students, their own governing bodies, business and civil society? The hyper-competitive landscape often propels business schools towards certain type of behaviour to win certain types of competition while the nature of the challenges faced require collaborative leadership and dialogue to develop future responsive strategies. This requires an ongoing Dean-level sense-making process to share ideas about approaches and futures. Business Schools need to resist the total onslaught of competition, to develop an understanding of where competition is useful and to identify the problems that competition cannot solve.

In relation to research, rankings and excellence contests and ‘A’ lists of journals will remain a key signalling device for quality and reputation; and it is futile to expect that a single Business School acting independently can withdraw from these contests. One solution is for Business Schools to develop research strategies independently of narrow competitive frameworks and then adjust the positioning of the strategy to meet ranking and other goals. This could enable Business Schools to encompass critical research to create better understanding and support for-profit and public and civil sector organisations, while presenting critical analyses of the effects of such organisations on the public good. There are now alternative visions which can be drawn upon for research strategies in which economic development is seen as important but in the service of other goals such as security, more secure livelihoods, and political and cultural freedoms (Gough and Wood, 2006). Business Schools need to engage in resisting pressures for corporate claims to trump, and ensure that profitability is set alongside other values, such as social justice and ecological well-being. A good example of such a research strategy is our own University of Bath School of Management’s Research4Good focus which aims to improve lives, enhance communities and strengthen the economy through research programmes on modern slavery, sustainability and the value of accessible and quality education in low-income countries. Responsible Research for Business and Management (RRBM) is a further example of scholarly communities coming together to inspire and supporting credible and useful research in the business and management disciplines which has a positive impact on organisations, communities and countries.

The A list of journals can also be supplemented by business school alliances coming together to develop criteria to select regionally relevant high-quality journals which can be officially recognised alongside the American top tier journals for tenure and promotion in specific regions. This can be supplemented by collective, concerted and sustained action to promote regional and scholarly diversity in the lists which are currently hegemonic and which act as an isomorphic pressure.

Business Schools can also move beyond the ‘student-as-disciple’ or student-as passive-consumer’ model to recognising students as co-producers. From this perspective, students will be configured as uniquely skilled participants, who, for the production of value-in-use to occur, must be given the opportunity to share their knowledge and make significant inputs to the learning and teaching process. This also requires a new understanding of the role of faculty. Co-creation, when applied to pedagogical relations, represents a more dialogical model that no longer privileges the Faculty’s vision of education but provides resources which foster the creation of specific innovative forms of student participation as a contributor to quality, satisfaction and value. In this way the problems encountered by a model based on the notion of a passive and instrumental student consumer are replaced by the notion of an engaged and co-creative learner which also leads to action-based and experiential learning.

Thought must be given to how to balance the intrinsic and extrinsic interests of students and how to develop a more holistic and critical model of management education so that Business Schools contribute to developing global citizens with critical reasoning while enhancing students’ abilities to respond to some of the most serious threats that democracy faces. Alternative conceptions of Business School education have emerged including responsible management education and education for sustainability. However, these courses are often optional, stand-alone courses and are often not integrated fully into the curriculum. An important programme is the University of Bath Doctor of Business Administration in Higher Education Management, which has a global component as well as a Future Leaders Programme tailored for South African higher education managers. Attracting higher education leaders from more than 60 countries, the curriculum is explicitly interdisciplinary, combines research with advanced leadership skills and is global beyond Anglo-Saxon perspectives. The programme enhances criticality, reflexivity and ethical awareness in higher education leaders including Business School Deans. A further holistic example is the liberal arts curriculum developed for undergraduate education at the Singapore Management School (Thomas et al, 2023). Experimenting with such models across various national contexts is vitally important for a more just and ecologically more sustainable world enhanced by student-centred learning.

Apart from the important reasons outlined above, there is another important reason for Business Schools to deviate from some of the specific tracks of the competition fetish, which led to increasing isomorphism within institutional tiers. Increasing competition will arise not simply from other Business Schools but from a booming list of private education, technology and consulting firms and mega-platform based global corporations all providing education that promise career and salary advancement. In order to survive and develop resilience, Business Schools need to differentiate themselves from such providers, and one of the ways in which this can be done is to focus on marrying employability with wider education goals which include sustainability, global citizenship and inclusive leadership; and develop research which is critical, novel, trustworthy and interdisciplinary and creates scholarly, policy and leadership impact.

See other articles from the Annual Research Volume 1

The competition fetish in business schools_challenges and responses


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