I was standing in the coffee queue at the University of East Anglia, in the break during the closing conference for our first-year business students. I turned to the student in front of me and asked if she had been at the session.
“No” she replied. “What was it about?” I explained.
“I hate business students,” she said passionately.
“Why do you hate business studies?”
Maria (not her real name) corrected me forcefully. “No, I said I hate business students.”
“Oh they’re just so… basic,” she replied.
“And what do you study?” I asked.
“English and Creative Writing.”
UEA is famous for its leadership in this subject and Maria was clearly loving her course: she could find meaning in it, be creative and use her imagination. Not like business students.
By this time we were at the front of the queue. I didn’t have time to explain that on our business studies course the students had to be creative. Our morning included two first year students giving presentations in front of 100 of their peers on the business ideas each had come up with as required by the syllabus. One student’s business idea involved researching and addressing the enormous waste created by the fast fashion industry. The other, presented complete with forecast revenues and risk analysis, was addressing the loneliness felt by many people and offering solutions including the opportunity to adopt a cat. Creative writing is also built into course assessment: students are required to keep a journal in which they reflect on what they have learned.
Nor did I mention that one of our speakers, Peter Ward, Chair of Telos Partners, had described how, in Macbeth, Shakespeare deploys characters including Banquo to represent the future while Macbeth seeks violently to preserve his present power. Peter related this to the tension experienced by all leaders in reconciling the demands of the present with those of the future. Nor did I mention that UEA Visiting Fellow Andrea Finegan, a former Chief Operating Officer of Greencoat Capital with 30 years’ City experience, had described how, in her view, the City had truly changed its priorities and become more creative in creating investment strategies that were good for the planet. For example by the use of an ‘ESG ratchet’ which rewarded borrowers with lower rates of interest when they made big environmental strides.
My conversation in the coffee queue took me back to another conference I attended recently. This one was about The Corporation in a Time of Instability and was held at City University Law Centre. Here I had heard Andrew Johnston, Professor of Company Law and Corporate Governance at the University of Warwick assert, somewhat sweepingly, that what he described as ‘the new social norm’ of sustainability is not currently embedded in UK corporate governance practices. Nor, he suggested was it having much influence on corporate behaviour.
To be fair to Professor Johnston we had a conversation afterwards and he has shared research papers with me that take a more nuanced view of the way corporate governance is changing and society’s demands are penetrating boardrooms.
Yet, reflecting on those two conversations, at two very different conferences I came to the view that we deprive our students if we deny them access to tangible experience of spheres outside their own. I wished Andrew Johnston had been on a panel with Andrea Finegan so that she could offer a lifetime of experience in the ways that UK corporate governance and behaviour had changed, especially in terms of sustainability. I wished that Maria could have witnessed the creativity displayed by two of the student contemporaries she had sweepingly dismissed as ‘basic’!
You don’t have to be studying creative writing to need a good imagination and a curiosity for the worlds that others inhabit. And just as our business students benefit from tasks that demand creativity, perhaps Maria’s creative writing might benefit from more exposure to alien worlds and disciplines.
A new principle is needed in our approach to higher education. It helps to cross frontiers. It helps to have respect for spheres of life in which we have no experience.
It is uncontroversial to suggest that it should be impossible to qualify as a doctor without understanding something about how the minds of human beings work.
Perhaps it should be impossible to read English and Creative Writing without also undertaking a module that introduces the student to other disciplines and helps them respect these.
We certainly owe students of business the opportunity to understand and explore how business ideas can be applied to people’s needs, which is what our programme is doing.
We could all be helped by an alarm which goes off inside our heads whenever we are dismissive about another area of life that we haven’t experienced.
Or perhaps what we should offer all students is a DISITSOO – a Diploma In Standing In The Shoes Of Others.
Mark Goyder is Founder of Tomorrow’s Company and an Associate Tutor at the University of East Anglia on an Applied Studies programme jointly run by the university and Tomorrow’s Company for first year undergraduates on Business as a Force for Good.