11 December 2019

A radical rethink of how first-year undergraduates learn about the world of business has landed the Business School a global education award.
Business School undergraduate course awarded global prize

The Global Challenges for Business course, led by Lecturer Sarah Ivory, has secured one of the ten 'Ideas Worth Teaching' awards announced in early December by the Aspen Institute. Previous winners include MIT and Harvard.

The award recognises "exceptional courses that are preparing future business leaders to tackle society's largest challenges and create a more inclusive, just, and sustainable version of capitalism".

The University and in particular the Business School should be really proud of this award as it is international recognition that what we're doing is valued.

Sarah Ivory explains how the course came about:

"About four years ago the Business School realised that the first-year curriculum needed to change. One of the problems I've found in teaching on a carbon finance degree or an elective on sustainability or climate change is you get people already aware of the issue. The School wanted to ensure all undergraduates were aware of contemporary issues facing the world, and were prepared for the real world of business as well as wider society. And we needed to do more to help our students in their transition into university. This whole course has been designed around that.

"The old way was: 'this is what strategy is, this is what marketing in, this is what finance is. Do some exams and tell us you understand'. That's fine but not very inspirational. We get students in who are very interested in the world and we took them into the abstract too quickly in the old approach.

"The new approach talks about digital disruption, environmental disruption, social and human disruption, and why these things are important for businesses to think about. We talk about the future of work, globalisation. The students feel inspired. They are interested in the place of business in the world.

"The first semester is about the idea that the business world is complex and there are a lot of disruptions and business is either part of the problem or the solution."

What impact has the new course had?

"Students are much more engaged. It's a very different way of learning. We centre the course around critical thinking that they will take with them throughout their degree and their professional lives: quality of argument, strength of evidence, and clarity of communication. What that does is make them understand the world is complex. Business doesn't have answers. It has evidence, reasoning, and arguments for making decisions.

"The course also gives them a voice. Their job isn't to learn what I say and repeat. Their job is to think for themselves. Because we're putting that upfront in the first semester, it is hopefully—and we have anecdotal evidence that it is—helping throughout their whole degree where they are thinking more. Thinking more is a better preparation for the workforce and their adult life."

The award recognises courses that "prepare future leaders"—how do we do that?

"We have to be careful about the word 'leader'. A leader can be someone within their organisation who takes an informal leadership position to change something. So by giving students agency, to have a voice, they face up to the fact that they are allowed to make decisions. Hopefully it also creates the next leading CEO because it makes people better thinkers and better thinkers get into leadership positions.

"What the world needs is leaders who can understand there is no right and wrong. We must have leaders who can compromise, listen to different arguments, or change their mind when it is based on good evidence."

The award also recognises courses that benefit the "long-term health of society"—how do we do that?

"Our course makes people think about the world as a whole system rather than saying what you're doing is ok as long as you make a profit and act within the law. What are the impacts on other stakeholders, individuals, or the environment?

One of the things we need to more is think about the wider context. Not just make decisions based on what has been the dominant shareholder profit-maximising perspective. Businesses who don't think about that wider context will eventually fail, either extremely and abruptly like Enron, or slowly as they no longer have any consumers. This isn't just wonderful altruism. This is understanding how the world's going to look in the future."

What should the impact of this award be?

"The University and in particular the Business School should be really proud of this award as it is international recognition that what we're doing is valued. It is an idea worth teaching for society and that's important. It links to the role of the business school in society generally. You look at the other award winners and these are schools that care about their impact on society, not just making sure businesses run efficiently but asking questions about why business exists and where it is placed in society.

"Businesses understand that if they fail to take into account issues such as sustainability or the responsibility for the lives of their workers, that will impact them in the future. Accreditation bodies are also looking at these issues.

"Our students are learning these issues not because we're forcing them to but because they want to. These students are coming into graduate employment expecting their employers to care as well, so for us to give them a voice matters. And that's very different from how graduates 15 to 20 years ago would have been treated."

Why do you think the Global Challenges for Business course happened in Edinburgh rather than elsewhere?

"It's the only European university this year to win one of these awards. Edinburgh obviously has a great tradition of enlightenment and leadership. There is something in the fact that we pushed for this new course. There is definitely something about the Edinburgh learning environment that means we are willing to be first-movers on important ideas."

Sarah Ivory

Sarah Ivory is a Lecturer in Climate Change and Business Strategy.

All 'Ideas Worth Teaching' Winners