Soapbox

April 10, 2013 1:01 pm

Margaret Thatcher’s business school legacy

MBAs became popular for aspiring managers during the 1980s

What has been the influence of Margaret Thatcher, the former UK prime minister, on business schools? Pretty significant I would say. Most particularly, her championing of the advantages of entrepreneurship, free markets and private sector business in general did a lot, more or less directly, to speed the growth and development of the business school sector in the UK. In other words, I, along with most of my colleagues, would be unlikely to have jobs in business schools today were it not for her.

When Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979, business schools were relatively small in size and number, ie pretty unimportant in the wider higher education sector. Their degree programmes, including MBAs, were still embryonic. But Thatcher believed in economic and social virtues of business. And she believed in these virtues like few politicians before her had done; indeed, when she came to power her radical views caught the imagination of many, creating a buzz of excitement among her supporters about the possibilities for change. By 1990, while most nationalised industries and public utilities had been privatised by her government, business schools had managed to expand – pretty much in parallel. MBAs, for example, had become de rigueur for aspiring top managers, in line with the zeitgeist of the 1980s, and first degrees in business for 18-year-olds were on their way to becoming the huge success that they are today.

However, it is perhaps fitting, that in line with someone whose legacy is so controversial, Thatcher also had some unintended effects on business schools. Somewhat surprisingly, for example, she managed to introduce into them (albeit indirectly) a good number of neo-Marxist theorists, along with others with similar politics. What happened was this. Reducing funding to other social sciences (especially sociology) as she did, while, at the same time increasing the prestige of business schools, meant that sociologists, especially sociologists of work (many of whom were neo-Marxists) were incentivised to join the ranks of business schools. So it is largely thanks to Thatcher, paradoxically enough, that today we have quite an influential “critical” tradition in business schools – one that was more or less non-existent in 1979. Indeed, today’s business schools often do research into topics that Thatcher would have hated. Workplace resistance, for example, is a favourite “critical” theme. Funny old world, isn’t it?

The author is professor of organisation studies and deputy dean (research) at Durham University Business School

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