Integrating sustainability into business education: part I

Earlier this year, BGA brought together a panel of Business School leaders to debate how sustainability could be integrated into the DNA of higher education effectively, to prepare business and society to address the challenge. Daniel Kirkland and Ellen Buchan report

Sustainability is one of the key issues facing society today, and garners increasing attention from governments, the media, academics and industry.

In response, BGA partnered with Imperial College Business School earlier this year to host an event focused on integrating sustainability into business education, which included a lively panel discussion among sustainability experts who delved into various aspects of the sustainability agenda, including the economic, the environmental and social perspectives. Business Impact attended the session and picked out some highlights and key takeaways from the debate.

Andrew Jack, Global Education Editor at the Financial Times (FT) kicked off the discussion in his role as moderator: ‘The Financial Times does deep coverage on business and business education, and we do a number of rankings’, he said. ‘But the FT itself has a new agenda which is about balancing profits with people, planet and purpose, so this area of sustainability, corporate responsibility and social impact is something that’s deeply important to us and is part of the reflection that we’re undertaking around the review of our rankings.’

He added: ‘I think a lot of people in this room share an understanding of the importance of sustainability, but of course given the historical culture of business, I wouldn’t say that the driving force behind the demand [for sustainability] has come from employers, or the majority of students, necessarily,’ before asking participants what the level of demand coming from employers and students really is for Schools to take sustainability more seriously and to integrate it into their teaching.  

Demand for sustainability

Paolo Taticchi, Director of the Weekend MBA and Global Online MBA at Imperial College Business School, took forward the conversation around the demand for sustainability: ‘In terms of the percentage of students demonstrating an interest for sustainability, I’ve seen this growing in the past six years,‘ he said.  

‘If you look at the number of electives that we offer in the sustainability space, all of them are doing well. We recently launched a module called ‘the future of cities’ where we look at the future of sustainability. Immediately we see there is demand for that. 

‘We are also seeing a growing number of students becoming interested in activities relating to sustainability, including workshops, conferences, and networking events which are organised by our students around investing in responsible business, diversity, or inclusive business.’

Judith Walls, Chair for Sustainability Management at the University of St.Gallen, added: ‘We have seen a strong student interest [in sustainability] for more than 30 years. If I look at master’s programmes, there is very high interest and demand in sustainability and people self-select into certain courses but I had the experience, recently, at the MBA level where we were offering a course and there wasn’t enough interest in sustainability. We didn’t have enough MBA students signing up and we cancelled the course. We’re now reviewing how we sell sustainability to MBA students. ‘At the university itself we have more than 10 student groups that are dedicated to
social and environmental sustainability,‘ Walls added. ‘So there are a lot of bottom-up initiatives from the students themselves.’

Clémentine Robert, President of oikos International, a student organisation that seeks to strengthen sustainability-oriented entrepreneurship, said that there was a higher demand every year for sustainability from students.

But she moved to address the apparent lack of interest in sustainability from the employer perspective, saying: ‘Basically, sustainability – at its core – is not necessarily there. It’s not what [employers] look for when recruiting a student for an internship or job. They want an ethical mindset and that is central to the recruitment process. Previously employers were not really looking for that in the recruitment process, so I would say that this has evolved. But there is still a lot to do, so we’ll keep working.’

The international business education arena

Maurizio Zollo, Head of Imperial College Business School’s Department of Management and Entrepreneurship has previously held roles at SDA Bocconi in Milan previously, and as a Visiting Professor at MIT in Boston, so he was keen to discuss the different approaches to sustainability between Italy, the UK and the US. 

‘In the European context there is a lot of growth and there is a lot more ease in both promoting and integrating sustainability content in programmes,’ he said. ‘The employer side, is still slowly progressing. 

‘Progress on the other side of the pond – in the US – is mixed. Some Schools seem to be able to find the appropriate way of doing this. It is typically Schools that are small, Yale [School of Management] for instance, that are able to rethink and redefine the whole MBA, starting from simple assumptions [based on] stakeholder organisation. We only have one planet, not two and a half. You know, that type of obvious assumption for those of us that are converted [to championing sustainability].’

Critical mass

Stefano Pogutz, Tenured Faculty of Management at SDA Bocconi said he was seeing ‘critical mass’ in terms of students seeking sustainability courses: ‘I see a lot of movement and attention at the undergraduate and the post-graduate level. The numbers are growing to the point that we are in trouble because now there are too many people and this type of active education cannot extend to 120 people in a class. 

‘The MBA has been a bit more resistant, so at Bocconi we’ve slightly changed the first year of the programme… Let’s see how it will be at the end of this year. I have mixed feelings right now. I think [the MBA programme is] where you have a little more resistance; it’s a common theme.’ Pogutz’s comments were followed by those of Andrew Crane, Director of the Centre for Business, Organisation and Society at the University of Bath who agreed that there had been a definite increase in sustainability on Business School programmes during his career: ‘We’ve got more students interested, we’ve got more faculty interested, and we’ve got more courses on sustainability, which is the good news story,’ he said. ‘The bad news story is it can only go so far. I don’t think there is a level of student interest or demand to really pull it deep into the curriculum. I’ve worked for the past 20 years in at least three of the top Schools for integrating sustainability into the core of the curriculum. If you want the percentage of students that are actually demanding more sustainability content, it is 1%. I get an MBA programme of 100 students. Within that, you’ve got one or two students who are the activists. 

‘And those are the programmes that are already doing pretty well. They’ve already got a core course dealing with sustainability, and an elective on sustainability. The challenge is getting students to think that they need more. They’re saying, “we already did sustainability, what else do I need to know?” 

‘So the challenge is, if we want greater student demand, how do we get students to ask for more than we’re currently giving?’

International examples 

George Iliev, Director of Strategic Projects and Innovation; Accreditation and China Director at AMBA & BGA, explained that, at the time of the event, BGA accredits five Schools globally and that, as part of this recently launched accreditation process, each institution’s sustainability credentials are examined. 

He explained: ‘One [BGA-accredited] School is in China and the programme that integrates sustainability the most in its curriculum is a joint management and engineering undergraduate programme. ‘I’ve never seen employers speaking so positively about the graduates of this programme. Granted, it is probably not the sustainability that is driving this, it’s the mix of engineering, management and electronics at the university.’ Iliev went on to discuss a School in Finland, which has been running a master’s in corporate environmental management since the 1990s, remarking that its students are very successful in finding jobs. 

This article was originally published in Business Impact magazine, issue #4 (June 2020)

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