With 100 years of teaching under its belt, how has the School's approach to teaching changed to reflect the world of business? We brought together a trio of academics (who are also alumni) to answer that question.

Professor Irvine Lapsley

Irvine Lapsley (BCom 1971, PhD 1983) is Professor of Accounting Emeritus who began teaching at the University of Edinburgh in 1974. He is Director of the Institute of Public Sector Accounting Research (IPSAR) and Editor of Financial Accountability and Management.

Sarah Ivory (MSc 2010, PhD 2014) is Lecturer in Climate Change and Business Strategy, having joined the School in 2008. She is Director of the Centre for Business, Climate Change, and Sustainability. In 2017 she established the first year compulsory course Global Challenges for Business which won an Aspen Institute 'Ideas Worth Teaching Award' in 2019. Dr Ivory also holds an MBA from Melbourne Business School, and a BCom (Hons) from the University of Melbourne.

Dr Sarah Ivory
Ben Sila

Ben Sila (MSc 2012, PhD 2015) is Lecturer in Finance, and completed both his MSc in Finance and Investment and his PhD at the Business School. He also holds a Bachelor's of Engineering (Computer Engineering) from Chulalongkorn University.

How would you describe your approach to the teaching of business?

Irvine: "It's basically about trying to ask interesting questions and also trying to get the students to do the same. I think, generally, the idea of stretching their mental faculties and getting them to think about their subject rather than being a passive recipient has always been the objective of the University."

Sarah: "Indeed—our job is not so much to create but to uncover interest. If you teach in a way that isn't conducive to that, then you can dampen down that interest pretty quickly. You've got to find that within them—it's already there. The first year undergraduates I teach are coming straight from school, and the potentially haven't been given permission to think for themselves. They've been trained on what to do to get good marks in an exam, and my job is to give them permission to think for themselves and find their voice."

Ben: "It may be because of my subject but I tend to do more 'learning by doing'. Through the process of guiding them through these tasks, they actually acquire the knowledge that they need. You can give people the answers, but they should come to their own conclusions. It might be the conclusion that you would have given them anyway but it's better if they arrive at it themselves."

Sarah: "That's right. I don't teach them what to think. We teach what I would call 'critical thinking light', so I teach quality of argument, strength of evidence, and clarity of communication. They need these building blocks if they are to think for themselves and that's the role of a business school."

Irvine: "We've always had opportunities for small group discussion and that's the foundation of this—where you encourage students to join in. It's an opportunity for them to engage and that goes all the way up the School. It means that they have to learn how to justify arguments and how to explain things. We get fantastic feedback from employers that our students really think and that they ask more interesting questions and are more mature with their approach to problem solving. How they can work together to solve problems—it's a way of thinking."

Ben: "Assessment has changed too. It used to be that students would be given a book and could simply reproduce it in the exam. Now there's much more variety with group work, teamwork, and practical exercises. We're working a lot with industry partners to work on consultancy projects too. It gives students a taste of what it takes to actually go and work on a project for a company."

Sarah: "Yes—on the MSc in Carbon Finance programme, the students work on a problem that a business wants an answer to, not just a hypothetical one. It's not just businesses kindly coming to help out our students. They get something in return so it's very much a reciprocal relationship."

Irvine: There's a very long tradition of having speakers come and talk about what they are doing in business. It's maybe more concerted now and there's probably an expectation to engage in this way now, but this has certainly been a feature for many years."

How do you think the School has had to adapt to changes in the world of business?

Irvine: "In the 1980s, you had Margaret Thatcher's privatisation here in the UK—that totally changed the landscape of the country—and the Japanese economic miracle. Flip on to the 1990s, and we had a government with a preoccupation for things like value for money and accountants and auditors were getting into all kinds of organisations. So that shaped our way of teaching and what we put into it. If you flip on again into the 2000s and the credit crunch and then the global financial crisis—these are things that pose great issues, like how do you budget, how do you forecast—how do you deal with these things?"

Ben: "One of the key changes is that businesses require fewer people because most of the processes can be automated. As a result, when our students start work, they need to have a much broader set of skills. With the MSc in Finance, half of the students will probably not end up working in financial services as we know it, because that has changed. Banks don't keep the money they lend on their balance sheet anymore but instead pass them on to other investors. With financial transactions, there's a large proportion that aren't going through traditional banks—they are going through smaller fintech firms and there are business opportunities there."

Sarah: "You need to know a little bit of everything because, if you are going to lead, strategic leadership underlies all. There's also the responsibility issue. So, to what extent are business schools collectively responsible for some of those things that have gone wrong in business?"

Irvine: "Social enterprises and all the nonprofit organisations are really interesting. They're very different missions in the way they operate—that's a big challenge there for traditional businesses. Lots of businesses have gone horribly wrong and they've kind of lost their moral compass."

Sarah: "We have to ask the difficult questions about what the purpose of business is, and its purpose in society and in communities. That's when you have to think of this not just as a business school but as business' role in communities, social injustices and inequality, totally changing how we see the world. Business individuals need to understand the complexities of how all these things are intertwined and impact each other."