« Business schools have the a** between two stools. They’re supposed to help us grow while having us fit with their firms partner’s needs » Isis Latorre for my podcast Plouf (FR)
Today we reflect on our educative system, its privatisation and what it implies for schools’ mission as well as student’s vocational orientation.
what is a school made for?
When I think about schools, I first assume their role is to help us grow as citizens and thus find our place into the world. However, the privatization of colleges – similar to what North Americans colleges experienced for instance – changes this way of approaching education.
Socialter (a French magazine) went over this topic in their 47th issue which focused on universities’ need for treasury… filled by big firms. Indeed, in the 2000s a series of laws were voted for more « budgetary freedom » on the school’s part. This simply meaning that state subventions were cut, forcing the institutions to find new ways of funding. Some turned to their alumni, changed their legal statuses for private gestion, etc. But almost all of them went where the money flows: big firms such as banks or multinationals. This blossoming partnerships with top tier French universities allowed for the latter to remain afloat.
what about independence?
This new trend ends up in having many students doubting their school’s actual freedom in terms of syllabus, knowledge delivery and possible greenwashing.
For instance, the initiative « Polytechnique is not for sale » emerged to protest against their association with BNP (a French bank). At Science Politique (another French top tier institution), many students expressed their concern when seeing that their courses syllabus seemed to be designed with the school’s partner approval in mind… Finally, in Paris Science & Lettre university, a group of students protested against the establishment of a new CSR oriented course sponsored by a bank notoriously known for its environmentally disastrous actions (source: Socialter #42).
Some sociologists like Olivia Chambard even argue that by adopting this new funding strategies, schools have changed their mission. Shifting from a knowledge-centered model to a place designed to mold youngsters to the future workplace know-hows, rituals and soft-skills. In short, universities are supposed to accustom students to their future tasks, lifestyle and socialisation. This explains for instance business schools’ associative model – where we learn how to function as a firm…. –, its multiple afterwords – mimicking the ones we’ll enjoy down the road with our coworkers who might just be someone from the school –, etc. Some firms go even further in blurring the border between studies and work-life by borrowing vocabulary from the first field. As an example, I’ve heard some of my friends in consulting talk about « passing » their year or « doubling it » depending on their results…. like mid schoolers. This implies that our conditioning starts – in fact – quite early in life.
In this sense, it’s not surprising we all tend to take such « classic » path once graduated. We simply tend to reproduce a scheme we’er used to (and being rewarded for it still whether it be in grades, praise and/or money).
Olivia’s analysis is quite interesting if we analyse how universities adopt to their context. Indeed, in the 2010s, a fair share of business students destined themselves for consulting or auditing. Today, many polls and studies highlight that
- the percentage of entrepreneurs tend to raise – which is not surprising given the social and political environment we deal with nowadays
- more and more reorientations happen in people’s early professional life (up to max 3 years post-graduation)
Those two elements show how our society’s model of achievement has changed over the years (we’re now into what many refer to as « the passion economy »). If the schools manage to form the first – becoming an entrepreneur is clearly some institutions’ core strategy –, we are in right of wondering which role they played in those « early deviations » and how this percentage will accentuate in the coming decades.
Will schools as we know it disappear? I wish (money makes the world go round as they say)! But will trickle-up work so that schools are forced to change their educative approach like firms started to do to face young generations’ will for more environmental policies? I certainly hope so.
Let’s take a random French Business School and call it Educating young Managers for Life (the acronym sounds familiar? Well, it’s not intended at all). In its former business model, this school thrived on subventions and donations either given by the state – or its deputies – in the first case or angels in the latter. But at the end of the 2010s, this school loses its right to ask for subventions, which causes treasury to go down. This happens even though tuitions fees inflate and student enrolment increases to start and reach a new economic balance.
The solution, as we might suppose, lies into building a new business model. For this particular school, salvation came from
- changing its statuses to officially become a join-stock company
- opening its capital to bigger firms and alumni
- remastering its course offer
With this shift, business was kept afloat. However, an interesting change of mission can be observed.
- Being a company, the educative firm now has a strong financial challenge in order to repay its shareholders. The focus is not so much user-oriented but business-oriented.
- The companies supporting the (re)born school now expect it to raise its next gen executives and bridge the professional gap sometimes existing between youngsters and firms
- Its main revenue steam being big firms and executive education, the school’s initial beneficiaries (aka the students) now become a means to an end
My questions are then: how can we develop a student-oriented model in those school when the clients’ interests can conflict? aka why develop an offer to help students reflect on their personal needs in the professional world if the risk of having them reorient themselves exist? (which then conflicts with the HR needs of a bigger client: the firms)
Of course, the answer can’t be found in one posting. Thought, I’m convinced it lies into collective reflection to design a new learning paradigm essentially focused on students. If their alignment/need for impact is reach, then, a new engaged generation of workers will emerge… to change our world for the better.
The core question however remains: which business model would be the most sustainable for schools to last while delivering valuable knowledge?
– Les grandes écoles à la botte des multinationales, Socialter #47, Militer par temps de crise
– Olivia Chambard’s work