The aftermath of a seismic political event jangles the nerves, irritates old wounds of which we were only vaguely aware. As the dean of a British business school, reacting to the U.K.’s popular vote to leave the European Union can easily be framed in narrow, measured terms around the impact on the operations of business schools, our competitive positioning, and the challenges for the future. But such a response negates the significance of this event, misses the issues behind the success of “Vote Leave,” and does not throw light on how we as an intellectual community—which should be at the heart of these issues—reacts. A response to an event of this magnitude rather needs to be visceral, from the heart, to be soul searching, if we are to learn anything from it and create not only better business schools but stronger economies and better societies.
The British exit from the EU, or "Brexit," did not come out of the blue, any more than did the appeal of Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders in the U.S. It came from a wellspring of discontent, indeed of anger. Often incoherent, often inarticulate, it is nevertheless real. It is the lived experience of those for whom globalization, the tech revolution, financial capitalism has not worked. The fall of the Berlin Wall, Fukuyama’s infamous end of history, removed an alternative vision—however flawed—of a future in which the world order was reversed. There was a vacuum of ideas into which the casual consensus of the winners flowed. There was only one narrative. In (little) Britain, the Labour Party, which had represented those for whom the old alternative vision offered a future, abandoned that narrative and embraced market capitalism and social liberalism. Markets may have led to job losses across traditional industries, but they brought cheap consumer goods. Immigration may have brought a far more vibrant cultural milieu, but it also brought wage stagnation and pressure on the public services on which many of those on the receiving end of globalization relied. Social liberalism jarred with traditional values.
Yet many, if not all of us in the British business school community, saw little of this anger. The businesses with which we work and the students we teach are by and large the winners in this globalizing society. We are in a bubble. We intuitively knew this anger was there, but it was not part of the world in which we worked and socialized. In our somewhat rarefied, and certainly liberal, world, the appallingly low representation of young working-class males in universities is recognized, but this particular demographic is not “protected” in the lexicon of equality, diversity, and inclusion. We turned our backs on them, and they in turn have turned their backs on the world we value. Have they shifted the direction of “progress,” or have they, like the Luddites, raged uselessly against the machines? Alternatively, is it the Eloi and Morlocks of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine?
In this world we cherish—of the exchange of ideas, of free movement of people, of our position as experts—are we able, hand on heart, to claim that what we do and produce is particularly valuable, is more valuable than the all too often dirty, routine heavy work undertaken by this disenfranchised class? The paper in the A* journal or in a journal designated top 45 by the Financial Times is the metric on which academic success is measured, the basis of promotion and of bragging rights and our identity. Yet what does the pursuit of such papers actually deliver to society? What does it have to do with the major issues of our time—the issues of stagnating wages, of disenfranchisement, of the very future of work?
"What Brexit should mean is that we do not shy away from addressing these issues, that we should reconsider what we deem valuable and focus on our role as thought leaders capable of reshaping the economy and business in our societies."
We can research—we do research—about the mechanics of globalization, the mechanics of the financial system, the mechanics of technological innovation and are handsomely rewarded for unquestionably clever research that advances knowledge of those specific issues. But what of addressing the consequences of globalization, of the contemporary financial system? Are these multidisciplinary messy issues more inherently difficult to research? Probably. Are the research methodologies more challenging? Possibly. Are they more difficult to publish in A* journals? Almost certainly. What Brexit should mean is that we do not shy away from addressing these issues, that we should reconsider what we deem valuable and focus on our role as thought leaders capable of reshaping the economy and business in our societies. The matter is obviously not as binary as such a portrayal implies. There is excellent research being done on the impact of technology on work, on the place of business in society. But it is less extensive than the work on the mechanics. It is less likely to be found in those FT 45 journals. And do we adequately engage with the policy world?
Back to the mundane issue to hand: What does Brexit mean for British business schools? Unquestionably it means uncertainty and some disruption, but then the latest iteration of British government higher education policy was managing quite nicely on that front without any help from disgruntled voters. We are still so early in the tumultuous changes unfolding from the vote that one cannot be certain as to their impact, but we can assume certain areas of business school life will be affected. The separation will mean significant uncertainty for staff from EU countries working in British business schools in terms of residency rights. It will probably raise the cost and complexity of hiring EU staff, putting it on a par with that of currently hiring non-EU staff. It will probably damage British business schools’ ability to recruit EU students, particularly bachelor’s students, should access to student loans be restricted. Our competitors from Europe to Australia will be modestly pleased. It will impinge on our support for SMEs and regional growth as regional development funding is withdrawn; no one seriously thinks that a U.K. government will match that level of funding. It may impact our access to, and critical ability to shape, major European research funding streams, which are an increasingly significant source of funding for British business schools. But it will not be an existential challenge.
Framed in this way, the challenges faced by business schools in the aftermath of Brexit are the parochial problem of a well-fed, some may say over-indulged, part of the academy that has little wider relevance, so in best British parlance we need to have a stiff upper lip and just get on with it. However, such a perspective is to ignore the impact of Britain’s business schools on the economy. We may have failed to adequately focus on the major societal issues, but we unquestionably do make an impact on the economy. Our ability to attract and educate talented European students enhances the talent pool available to British companies and swells the pool of aspiring entrepreneurs critical to the creative and tech sectors on which Britain increasingly depends. Attracting the best staff globally and accessing major research funding streams underpins the innovation on which our economic performance is dependent. Beyond this, we are a major economic sector in our own right, generating significant multiplier benefits across regional economies through the staff employed in business schools and the students residing in a particular area.
So the impact of Brexit on business schools is not just our problem; it is a wider economic problem for the U.K., albeit one that pales in insignificance compared to the other economic woes likely to be wrought by Brexit.
But then might the vote to leave—at least if we can acknowledge the root causes of that rejection of Europe and the status quo—just might it encourage us to reorient our research away from those neat technical problems on which we have built our careers to focus on more fundamental challenges, those knottier problems that confront our societies? Although I am confident that we have the resolve and resilience to manage the technical problems that confront us, such as the issues of staff and student recruitment, I am less confident that we will be able to reorient research in business schools to focus on those critical problems that challenge our entire society. Until the metrics change, until the league table drivers change, until the promotion criteria change, we will not change our research focus, no matter how fine the words about our intent. And therein lies the challenge, not just for British business schools but for schools in all countries where there is a raging insurgency against the status quo, against the perceived elites.
"The revenge of the disenfranchised may ultimately hurt them more than it hurts us as members of a privileged caste, but it should wake us out of our stupor. We as a community must be part of the response to the challenges facing advanced economies today."
But it is not just about research; it is about our programs, as well. As a community we generally deliver high-quality programs that provide students with the technical knowledge required to take on leadership roles in significant business functions. However, issues of ethics, sustainability, and responsibility still inhabit the fringes of our programs. There are some lights on the horizon—not all the lights across Europe are going out. For example, in my own school, Lancaster University Management School, the Management, Political and International Relations bachelor’s program delivered in conjunction with the Department of Politics, Philosophy, and Religion explicitly connects business, politics, and philosophy to wrestle with the fundamental issues facing contemporary business and society. The degree is attracting increasing numbers of students, the majority of whom ironically come from Europe.
I am proud to be a socially liberal, internationally oriented believer in trade and markets as an overwhelming force for good. I am, however, in the aftermath of the EU referendum, ashamed of the way we have ignored the real concerns of parts of our society, the way we have blindly focused on sectional interests. That ignoring has certainly returned to bite us as we stumble out of the EU. The revenge of the disenfranchised may ultimately hurt them more than it hurts us as members of a privileged caste, but it should wake us out of our stupor. We as a community must be part of the response to the challenges facing advanced economies today; we have a distinctive capacity to shape thinking around the place of business in society and around the future of work, technology, and self-worth. It is time that we as a community focus on these fundamental issues, metaphorically to create a new form of transport rather than improve the horse and cart.
Angus Laing is dean of Lancaster University Management School in the U.K.