Lessons to be learnt from the ‘university of life’

Business schools should try to understand the changing needs of the commercial world

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University education is undergoing an evolution. As educators we can no longer rely on delivering theory-based, thought-provoking concepts and ideas without some element of practical, real-life experience.

The academic community can learn from those who subscribe to the ‘University of Life’, where emphasis on practical working is highly valued. We need to assimilate the best of both worlds to enable our students to combine study-based skills and the knowledge they gain from a degree, alongside an element of commercialisation. This will produce ‘work ready’ graduates, a concept which has been championed by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) in its 21st century Leaders Report, published earlier this year and which I have been involved with.

The report highlighted key issues faced by employers and the perception of what skills someone with a business degree is likely to offer: 51 per cent of employers say they have a hard time recruiting new managers and 65 per cent of employers agree graduates lack the interpersonal skills to manage people effectively. The solution is not rocket science — creating a platform to provide experience of running and working in a business alongside their studies is a good starting point.

Imparting knowledge is a given as part of a degree, and perhaps, so should be the provision of practical experience — a comment often levied at graduates is that they are naive about the real world of work. Employers are well placed to support this element of business education by simply opening their doors to future talent. There are many ways to do this — internships, work placement programmes, coaching and mentoring from business owners and managers and business simulations with employers to name a few. There is an argument that businesses are often too shy in offering enough of these opportunities to the talented young people seeking them.

The report found that while employers want business-minded graduates, only 22 per cent offer work placements or internships and 40 per cent of businesses surveyed could not say if business schools understand the needs of their organisation. This mismatch is something the sector needs to address and when working with our business counterparts.

Business schools and universities need to facilitate commercial links and take the time to understand the changing needs of the commercial world, especially where SMEs are concerned with the time and resource pressures they often face. For example, if business schools adapted to behave more like the businesses they want to connect with, by offering a one-stop shop solution to relationships with business owners and entrepreneurs, there may be greater levels of engagement and collaboration.

Building ties with local economies and networking within the business communities which business schools serve is also vital. For example, working with Local Enterprise Partnerships, local schools and tapping into representative trade body networks is all activity that helps cement closer working relationships between commerce and academia which in turn benefits students and business owners.

The future success of our businesses depends on this change in focus in business education. Companies are evolving and changing at an ever faster pace with new technologies and ways of working and we, as custodians of tomorrow’s talent, must adapt to create the right environment to allow future business leaders to flourish from day one of their university education.

The author is pro vice-chancellor and executive dean of the faculty of Business and Law at the University of the West of England and vice-chair of the Association of Business Schools.

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