Shut Down The Business School


What follows is a transcript of an interview with Martin Parker for ZNet. It took place via Skype and has been edited for concision.

Could you start by saying something about yourself. What is your background? Where do you currently work?
My name is Martin Parker, I’m a Professor at the University of Bristol in the School of Management. My background is in sociology, anthropology and cultural studies. That is what I did my training in. Then I ended up working in a small management school at Keele University in North Staffordshire about twenty something years ago now and that was partly because I was always interested in the sociology of organisations and various forms of critical thinking, but also because it was around about the time that that was where jobs were. So it wasn’t really possible to get jobs in sociology departments because sociology departments were tending to contract but that was around the same time that business schools were rapidly expanding. So I, and lots of other people I know who graduated with PhDs in sociology and politics and other subjects too, ended up getting jobs in the people and organisations parts of schools of business and management.

I recently read your latest book – Shut Down the Business School – and really liked it, both in terms of content and style. For what it is worth, I would highly recommend it! Could you give a brief overview of the subjects covered in that book?

In a sense the book condensed a whole series of my complaints. I had spent a long time writing little pieces that moaned about various aspects of what Business Schools did and finally decided I had to get the whole thing off my chest. So I spent a whole miserable summer just complaining, writing out my complaints and being cross but also thinking about in practical terms what should be done, what is my manifesto, in a sense. A quick summary of the book would be something like, it is a book in two parts. The first part tries to explore what is wrong with the contemporary Business School, both within the U.K. and more broadly. The second part tries to explore alternative ways of thinking about organising and suggests, and I suppose this is the key punchline, that rather than thinking about schools of business and management that just reproduce a certain set of assumptions about hierarchy and markets and all the rest of it, what we should be doing is teaching ‘organising’ and I define organising as a much more open-ended and generous process, that allows us to think about questions of responsibility, of ecology, of gender, and includes, or could potentially include, ideas from anarchist thought, from deep green thought, from feminist thought and so on. And obviously socialist and communist thought too. So it’s almost like a kind of an invitation to a broader way of thinking about organising.

In your latest book you call for the Business School to be replaced by what you call the School for Organising. Before getting on to the latter, could you say what the basic problem with the Business School is, as you see it? Why do you focus in on this particular organisation within society? What is so important about the Business School?

The rise of the Business School is something that is not really commented on that much. But it is an astonishing change in higher education globally, particularly in the U.K. What we have seen in the last twenty or thirty years is the globalisation of a particular form of higher education which teaches and mostly reproduces a set of assumptions about global capitalism and the way that business should operate. In the book I claim that there are now something like thirteen thousand Business Schools globally and their turnover, in terms of fees, is something in the region of four hundred billion dollars. So we are talking about a very big sector, a set of institutions that has enormous purchase in terms of the number of people it teaches about the way that their society should be structured.

The key problem for me is the way that the Business School essentially encourages us not to question the existing order. The quick summary, I suppose, is to say that these are schools for capitalism. They teach capitalism and very often teach capitalism in the most crude and unreconstructed way, particularly in the areas of finance where many of the instruments of financialised capitalism that caused the last financial crisis, are being taught as if they were acceptable within the Business School. Now, I’m not saying the Business School is the only reason that we have the particular problems with capitalism that we have at present but it is clearly one of the amplifiers, one of the megaphones, one of the producers of the ideology that supports a particular economic and social structure and I think, and an increasing number of people think, that that economic and social structure is causing us huge problems in terms of the generation of inequality, the production of environmental externalities, the assumptions about leaders and led which are resulting in the kind of populism and nativism that we are seeing right the way across the global north. It is clear to me that the structure that we have is broken and yet we have a set of instructions that seem to be blithely carrying on as if there were no problems or if they do acknowledge those problems they largely reduce it to corporate responsibility and tinkering around the edges. What I think is we need major revision. Well not just revision, I think we need revolution in terms of the way we educate our young people about their economic life and possibilities.

Could you say something about the impact the Business School has had on university culture and education more generally and the potential for progressive social change?

Certainly, yes. I think that in the U.K. and increasingly in other parts of North Western Europe that the Business School is a bit like a virus that has been injected into its host and is gradually changing it. So what we are seeing is a kind of shift within university management and governance towards more business-like ways of language and decision making. Now again, in the U.K. context that is not at all surprising because effectively what we’ve seen over the past three decades, and intensely since the financial crisis, is the marketisation of our higher education. So state support has been withdrawn and a quasi-market system has been established which means that universities are competing with one another for students. Students are the bags of cash. That means universities are spending a lot more on marketing, a lot more on their strategic positioning with respect to each other and these are all costs that have to be paid for out of student fees. One of the ironies, I think, about market efficiency is, of course, to play the market game you need to be engaging in similar kinds of market strategies and all the rest of it and that costs cash. The way in which universities seem to be developing in the U.K. in some ways both relies on the Business School, as an institution to earn them lots of money, particularly to high fees to overseas students for masters degrees mostly, but also curiously internalises the kind of logic, the argument, the language of market managerialism. And so as I attend various meetings at various universities, you might as well be in a corporation of some description because the more, if you like, liberal or radical arguments for universities existence are becoming harder and harder to make, harder to justify. Now that is not saying they have gone completely. That would be a foolish position to take. But you can see around the edges the ways in which there has been an increasing dependence on market managerial strategies and less and less faith in the idea of the social good of higher education and the importance of critical reflection.

I’m interested in the class analysis that underpins your thinking about the ideology of what you call market managerial capitalism. It appears to go beyond the classical Marxist way of seeing things. You seem to think there is more than just a contradiction between worker and capitalist interests going on. Is that correct?

Yes. I’ve always had a complicated relationship with Marxism because it seems to me that Marxism, particularly in terms of class analysis, is always where we should begin. That reminding ourselves about the fundamental antagonisms within capitalist societies is a really important starting point. However, I rarely find that simple dualism between middle class and working class, bourgeoisie and proletariat, to be, how can I put it, to be a very fine instrument for understanding what’s actually going on in any given context. And if you want to understand university education right now, and more specifically about Business School education, it is not enough just to divide the world into two different groups and say that they have opposing interests. That’s kind of true but it’s actually much more fractured than that. So say, for example, we take the British university system, the divides between the kinds of people who go to the University of Bristol and the University of Staffordshire are very substantial indeed and so too are the divides between people who go to the University of Staffordshire and fifty percent of the population who don’t go to university at all. But that’s not to say that anybody who’d got a degree is necessarily particularly advantaged in the labour market. And lots of the people who are going to the less privileged universities will effectively be moving into less privileged jobs. They won’t be getting the same kinds of jobs that students at the University of Bristol will. So what I think we are seeing is a kind of a reproduction of a set of class positions but it is more complicated than simply saying there are the bourgeoisie and proletariat because very few of the people we are talking about are actually owners of capital in any meaningful sense. The owners of capital are somewhere else and to understand that we need an analysis of global capitalism and financial flows and particular kinds of cities and particular concentrations of wealth. So, I guess I very often start with Marxism but I rarely end with it, if that helps.

So what is the ‘School for Organising’ and how would it differ to the Business School?

The idea for the school for organising is to open up the study of organisational possibilities and it trades on the idea that if we want to encourage our young people, and perhaps older people if we are talking about lifelong learning as well, to think about experimentation and possibility then they need to be exposed to lots of different ways of thinking about organising, different assumptions about time and space and people and so on, in order that they can themselves think creatively about what they want to do, what kinds of organisations they want to be part of, or they want to start, or perhaps that they want to end. Now the problem is whether I could convince a university to destroy its Business School and setup a School for Organising and I’m sceptical about that. At is my present institution, I’m doing my best to introduce different ways of thinking about organising into the curriculum and into our assumptions about course development and things like that but it is unlikely that I will get anything like the revolution I am suggesting in the book. So in a way the book is a kind of provocation. I think somewhere in the book I say something like ‘my failure is already assured’, or something like that, because I already assume that I am not going to get what I want. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t paint a picture of a more desirable future. And I guess the more interesting possibilities for the School of Organising probably lie outside the university. Over the last couple of years, since I started writing about these kinds of things, I’ve been contacted by quite a lot of artists about this idea which is kind of interesting, and maybe something will come of it one day. Artists get this idea of an encouragement to creativity, a kind of an incitement to think otherwise because it seems to fit with their practice, with the way in which they think about what they do. And I kind of like that. So the School for Organising might be outside the university.

Also, could you say something about how you see the transition from the Business School to the School of Organising. How might that happen? Who do you see as the main agents for change?
Let me describe the thing I am trying to do at the University of Bristol because that might help. So I now lead something called the Inclusive Economy Initiative and the idea is to try and get as many university staff, from primarily social sciences but any other part of the university too, working with various groups and people from the social economy in Bristol. Bristol is a really interesting city in that regard because it’s got a local money, it’s got a couple of proposals about setting up regional banks, it’s got a big group of green organisations and lots of examples of coops and employee ownership trusts and all the rest of it. So, what I want to try and do is use the university’s resources and its research strength to be co-producing research with all these institutions from the local economy. Now, that’s in part, of course, because I want to encourage the development of a greener and more inclusive economy but I’m also hoping it will be a way of radicalising the university a bit. If successful, it will mean that many of the academics who I’m encouraging to move in these sorts of directions will end up writing and thinking differently, they will end up researching and teaching about alternative organising, alternative ways of thinking about markets, about low carbon economies, all the stuff that we need. Now, whether or not that can then get backflushed into the School of Management at my and other universities is something I very much hope. I don’t know whether this will work or not but that seems to me, in my present position, a useful way to use the university as an institution, as a kind of an instrument of social change of some kind.
Finally, do you think that your analysis could be applied to other parts of the economy? For example, I work in a National Health Service (NHS) Hospital. Like other Trusts my workplace has a commitment to evidence based practice. Furthermore we know from public health research that workplace organisation has an impact on health outcomes. And yet I see no evidence that supports the current management culture within the NHS. Any thoughts?
I suppose, in the U.K. and large parts of the global North, the spread of managerial ideas, usually called New Public Management, is something people have written about for a long time. Since the 1980s, and this is related to the Thatcher-Reagan consensus, there’s been this assumption that public bodies need a dose of managerial and market discipline in order to be more efficient, to innovate more effectively and so on. Now, these sorts of ideas are now deeply embedded in our public institutions in the U.K. and after all, if we take the NHS, roughly a third of the NHS isn’t run by the state at all, it’s run by various private corporations then badged as NHS and to my mind that’s a scandal because I’m a firm believer in public ownership of the National Health Service.
What you are pointing to though is more practical problems within the NHS and lots of our public institutions. It is not just about the NHS, it’s about local councils and public utilities and universities and so on. Now I don’t see any particular reason why organisations can’t be run in more democratic and inclusive ways. That seems to me a fairly obvious thing to say. That being said, I think there are specific structural problems within certain organisations concerning knowledge and expertise. It would be daft to imagine somehow that a hospital could be run as an anarchist collective in which everyone was making decisions about everything all the time. When I go to a hospital I want a doctor who knows what they’re doing and has the power and technical expertise to deal with whatever my problem is. And I think that requires a particular set of bureaucratic protocols to make stuff happen. Basically not to fuck-up, that is the idea.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to organise the administrative support or culture in an incredibly hierarchical manner. Having rules about the way organisations operate is not the same as having hierarchy or saying that only certain people can make decisions or that budgets are held in particular ways. Those are different kinds of questions, aren’t they? There must be a way of disentangling what you need as an organisation functionally in order to do your job well, and I think that does require a certain hierarchy of expertise, assuming that not everybody is going to be equally skilled in dealing with a broken leg, or whatever it is. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the back office stuff that supports that needs to be organised in a market managerial fashion. Those are separate questions, to my mind. They are different ways of thinking. So, of course, the implication of your question is that the NHS could be organised differently and that the influence of particular forms of market and financial discipline and authority and so on could recede and I think that is exactly right. That is quite possible but it does importantly point to the fact that each time we think about organising we need to think about it in slightly different ways in different contexts.
I think that the organising that we need for a hospital is going to be different to the organising we need for a university or for a campsite or for a circus or whatever. History, anthropology and sociology are studies about the diverse ways that humans have arranged their worlds. The whole point is that it is variable. There is not one model that we can simply roll out and say this is the best in all circumstances. The metaphor I usually use, and it seems to work reasonably well, is to think about tools. It’s like saying that a hammer is always the thing to use even if it’s a screw you are working with. Human beings are fantastically imaginative and creative, so why are we teaching people that market managerialism is the solution to every problem?

2 Comments

  1. Carol Groves June 20, 2019 9:03 am 

    What a brilliant pair of minds are at work here. Mark’s thought ful and enabling questions have provided Martin Parker with the chance to express some original and encouraging ways forward out of this mess we find ourselves in thanks to adherence to outdated and self-seeking ways of conducting our economy.
    Thank you both; there is hope!

  2. avatar
    Michael May 24, 2019 11:45 pm 

    Martin Parker makes really good points. The university business school is a bastion of conservatism, and here conservatism is not in the best sense, if there is on.

    What is taught in business schools is essentially “how to get yours” and keep it. It is deeply rooted in self-interest and largely to the detriment of the social welfare of the whole society.

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