Look north: Julia Köhler, a German student interested in sustainability, opted for a course in neighbouring Denmark
Look north: Julia Köhler, a German student interested in sustainability, opted for a course in neighbouring Denmark © Andreas Beck

When Julia Köhler decided to study business, with a focus on sustainability, she quickly switched her search for a suitable masters course from her native Germany to the Nordic nations.

She ended up at Copenhagen Business School, where she is taking a degree in the management of innovation and business development. “I wanted to go into sustainability, attend somewhere with a good reputation and be able to afford my studies,” she says.

While most people from the Nordic countries study locally, there is something distinctive about the culture of northern Europe and its commitment to environmental, ethical and governance issues that is attracting students from further afield. Business schools in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland featured prominently in submissions and selections made by judges in the FT’s responsible business education report in October, designed to highlight best practices in research, teaching, student projects and operations management.

Many companies and investors in the region have a focus on sustainability, as do senior international leaders in the field: from Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minister whose UN commission coined the phrase “sustainable development” in the 1980s, to Lise Kingo, the Dane who heads the UN Global Compact, which encourages businesses to adopt sustainable policies.

As with citizens, companies and governments, Nordic business schools offer teaching and research with a commitment to values and social purpose that goes further than many of their peers elsewhere in Europe and around the world.

“Nordic societies are different, and they value different things to a different degree. Universities and business schools are a reflection of that,” says Gregor Halff, dean of Copenhagen Business School, which includes core courses on sustainability and governance. “It is about balancing individual responsibility with duty to society. There is a lot of that thinking in our curriculum design, and I am seeing it in schools across the Nordics.”

After becoming dean two years ago, he launched a wide-ranging consultation on the future of the school, including discussions with recruiters. “The real pressure is from employers,” he says. “They knew our students had discipline-based technical knowledge and they could provide training on the job. What they wanted from them was a lifelong ability to balance trust with competitiveness, and growth with sustainability.”

Ingmar Björkman, dean of the business school at Aalto University in Espoo, Finland, whose courses include a masters in creative sustainability run jointly with the schools of arts and engineering, also points to pressure from employers with values close to nature — which in his country includes a significant forestry industry.

“When you interact with senior business leaders, the environment and social issues are very high on the agenda,” he says. “The Nordic social model might be an explanatory factor. Our societies have built strong responsibility for their inhabitants, with significant investments in social security and free education.”

He also points to another pressure point: the changing values of the students the school is seeking to recruit and train. “In many ways students might be a little ahead of us. That is the way it should be,” he says. For example, Aalto hosts the student-run Slush, an annual conference with a focus on sustainability that draws 20,000 participants and 3,000 start-ups.

Lars Strannegard is president of Sweden’s Stockholm School of Economics, which claims to have had a climate-neutral campus since 2009. “We try to make sustainability part of everything. It is not a coincidence that [teenage environmental campaigner] Greta Thunberg is Swedish,” he says. “The connection to nature is clear here: a lot of industry is nature-based, and it is part of the culture.”

He cites his fellow citizens’ commitment and connections to the countryside, including the widespread ownership of second, rural houses. “We are a small economy with a small home market, so you have a strange combination of being very outward-looking and international in your mindset while being really proud of what your country has,” he says.

While sustainability is integrated across the curriculum, Stockholm School of Economics also organises specialist programmes for more senior business people, such as a green bonds and sustainable finance executive programme co-ordinated by the International Finance Corporation.

“Sweden is a global leader in sustainability and green finance,” says Nilgun Osman, a manager at Isbank in Turkey, who took part this summer. She can point to a swift result: during her training she gained expertise and met Swedish-based investors, who were among those who participated in the first green bond her bank issued three months later.

Caroline Ditlev-Simonsen, professor of law and governance at BI Norwegian Business School, is cautious about the effectiveness of the Nordic countries in sustainability, and stresses the need for educators to diversify and deepen their focus. “We are always criticising companies but not looking at ourselves and our continued use of flying,” she says. “We are way too focused on having more things which is not sustainable, but we know people are not more happy with more things.”

At Copenhagen Business School, Mikkel Nielsen, president of the student council, also sees more work ahead, such as compulsory sustainability classes, greater efforts to create green campuses and divestment from fossil-fuel companies. “We are talking a lot right now on having more focus on sustainability,” he says.

Köhler says she turned to student activities to expand her awareness of sustainability at the school, including getting involved in the local chapter of Oikos, a student-led non-profit organisation focused on sustainability and social purpose in economics and management. “We need a really big shift to focus on the triple bottom line,” she says, referring to balancing corporate profit with wider social and environmental benefits.

She says there is a downside to the appeal of the Nordic take on sustainability for foreign students like her. “I would love to stay in the Nordics after finishing. There are a lot of job opportunities here,” she says. “But that attracts many talented people, so there is also a lot of competition, and Danish-speaking students have greater chances.”

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