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Andrew Jack x La Belle EDuC

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Andrew Jack is global education editor for the Financial Times and lead of the free FT for schools program. In October 2019 he published best practice examples of sustainability, ethics and social purpose in his piece “Social purpose: how business schools around the world measure up”, part of the Financial Times Special Report on Responsible Business Education. La Belle EDuC had the privilege of spending an hour with Andrew Jack discussing sustainability, the role of business schools and the need for quantifiable metrics in responsible teaching and research.

Interview by La Belle EDuC | July 20, 2020 | Photo (above) of Andrew Jack: Financial Times, Charlie Bibby and Lauren DeCicca

As someone who has brought strong media coverage to sustainability education, particularly as part of the Financial Times Special Report on Responsible Business Education, what developments have you witnessed over the years regarding this topic?

I’ve been following the topic of sustainability education closely as an outside observer for just three years, so while I cannot give a definitive historical perspective on it, I certainly have observed a significant and rising focus and debate around the topic. This is visible both in what business school program leaders and faculty are saying and providing and in what students and prospective students say that they want to be studying or getting out of business school programs.
This is also part of a context in which we see wider initiatives like UN PRME [United Nations' Principles for Responsible Management Education] and other networks and associations across both business education and the wider sustainability environmental space.
There is clearly a demand and appetite for more sustainability as well as a rising focus on the provision of different options, and this is being translated into new focuses on the side of the three main accreditation agencies [AACSB, AMBA and EQUIS].

Considering that rankings as well are highly influential, we would love to learn more about what the Financial Times is doing to take sustainability into account.

In our first and current attempt, CSR is weighing 3% of our main rankings, where we’re looking at elective options offered on sustainability subjects. In addition, we launched two rounds of the Responsible Business Education initiative [1], which tries to spark a debate and throw the focus back on the absence of decent, comparable, quantified metrics to measure schools’ involvement and their results. This involvement includes teaching as well as research and all the wider impacts of the schools. And I really believe that that’s where there is a gap to fill: impact measurement.

At La Belle EDuC we are developing a sustainability label (in partnership with French standardization organization AFNOR) that aims at measuring this involvement and its results, which is certainly a challenge, especially given the current low level of incorporation of content on social and environmental impact. What would you say has led to this situation, in which not enough is being done to prepare young people to tackle environmental and social issues?

Well, it’s a structural issue, isn’t it? This issue is not limited to the school environment and actually reflects the wider nature of society, which is still focused on short-term and narrow goals that often are in contradiction either with sustainability and climate change or more generally with societal impact. This fundamentally comes back to the issue of externalities, as people tend to focus on what they actually pay while we know that a lot of the costs involve a longer-term and less visible impact, which is more difficult to assess effectively.
If we take a closer look at schools, both high schools and business schools, I’d say that the current demand and aspiration for a change from the next generation is confronted with generational factors and inertia. Indeed, the school system is a reflection of what comes after, and until we see much greater political drive, initiatives by employers and an evolution in higher and further education options, it’s perhaps inevitable that the school system will not yet be fit for purpose.

Have you seen trends in certain types of schools leading the way towards more focus on sustainability?

I wrote a piece on this a few months ago ["Nordics lead the way in green business education"] and it’s probably no surprise that Scandinavia tends to be pretty significant, as well as the Netherlands. In these countries (Sweden, Finland, Denmark) there is definitely a slightly different “societal compact,” if you’d like, which was built and consolidated over the 20th century. Its characteristics include a shift towards egalitarianism and redistribution as well as the environment specifically but also the nature of corporate structures, with the importance of family ownership and social democratic traditions, and even a stronger bond and awareness of the connections between individuals and the environment.
And then, you know, there are pockets of excellence in many other places including some of the very traditionally hard-nosed capitalist-type schools, which thanks to their general level of resources, commitment and brand power also have some very good courses and options available.

Would you say that schools performing on traditional ranking criteria such as salaries upon graduation don’t perform as well on sustainability criteria?

I’m not entirely convinced that there is a direct inverse correlation. I mean it’s an endless debate that we have with schools and particularly those arguing around sustainability to say that we, for example in our ranking, should focus much less on salaries. I’m very sympathetic to that, although as we said already, one challenge is “What are the alternative metrics?”. Secondly, it’s sometimes misinterpreted that basically we don’t take into account that some graduates join the nonprofit sector, but actually they’re not conflated because we deliberately segment by salary bands and sectors, so there is nuance in how we’re measuring the financial outcome. Also (and this would be an interesting research project), when you work in banking or consulting your metric of success and the way you compete and attract talents tends to be high salaries, while again – and coming back to measurement – it’s obviously much more subtle and complex to measure output, value and productivity in more sustainability-related activities or employment sectors.
But I think there is an interesting argument around whether a school – either through what it teaches or the nature of the students it attracts – can still point to high salaries as a mark of success for the subset of students that do not go into these high-paying sectors. You might say that – while there are different skill sets and motivations – if you go to a school that has 10% or 20% of the students that go into the best-paying jobs, maybe that’s a proxy for the school’s wider capacity to attract the best talents and train effectively regardless of the sector that those students then go on to work in. So at least, and with regard to quantifiable metrics, you might argue that salary has a value-added role that goes just beyond those who go into high-paying financial jobs. Certainly it’s an unproven and quite difficult hypothesis to test but this is my broader theme: I’m waiting for the stakeholders, the sector, the employers and the business schools to come up with better ways of measuring the value added of the educational experience, also for the students who go into less well-paying sectors.
Secondly, although I’m sympathetic and engaged around these issues, a more cynical perspective is that very often the schools that play up their great achievements in sustainability are some of the schools that aren’t doing so well on the other traditional metrics. So there might be an element of marketing and PR or justification by other means that’s part of the equation.
And this leads me to my third point, that sometimes there can be a simplistic view that working for the public or nonprofit world nominally looks very appealing for sustainability while it does not necessarily have the impact that you hope for. The classic case is this: Will you have a greater impact on reducing climate change by going to a school that specializes in green issues and going to work for the World Wildlife Fund, or by going to Harvard and becoming head of packaging for Procter & Gamble – and maybe having a massive impact on reducing waste and packaging?
And this brings us to the following question: If you are a business school offering a specialist MBA in sustainability, what is actually having the greater or lesser influence on the wider goal of sustainability and social impact? Is it the nature of the training you’re providing, the quality of the students, or the places where they typically go into employment?

We’re totally aware of this ambiguity and therefore are trying to push schools to incorporate sustainability content not just as electives but rather into their more traditional business subjects and programs.

Of course! What can we say about the impact of a brilliant sustainability elective taken by only three students?
And then there are three other issues here for me. One is what we could call “virtue signaling”: Does the fact that you offer a course on the SDGs or publish an academic article in a sustainability journal actually make any difference? And how does this compare to a one-of-a-generation article in a hard-core journal of financial economics but that actually touches on something that shifts the whole action in a more sustainable direction?
A second issue relates to the idea of sustainability becoming “core”. Indeed the idea of making it compulsory makes sense, but if you force a senior accounting professor to have a section on sustainability in his course which he maybe doesn’t believe in or doesn’t teach well, is that providing any value? So I think there is a real challenge in trying to measure the quality and the value added of sustainability teaching.
The third structural issue is about how these things are packaged-up – especially for a business school that is part of a wider university. I think that rather than the business school offering an MBA and refocusing it or targeting it to people interested in sustainability, arguably the greater leverage would come from the business school offering useful courses on management, leadership, marketing, etc., to the full range of other faculties of the university. Indeed, one could argue that the greater impact for society or for the student body overall would be to provide more practical managerial skills to these students doing a professional discipline such as public policy, engineering or environmental design. So it’s about convergence.

So again, an aim should be to open up the silos that we’re putting students into.

Yes, absolutely.

What would you say to a university program leader who says that they are not incorporating sustainability content due to a lack of demand from their students and applicants?

Well, to be frank, I could sort of understand it. As I say, I do think there is an element of marketing to quite a lot of this, and a lack of yet being able to establish consistent metrics.
I could make an advocacy argument that the professors should be doing more but of course they are ultimately driven by signals. If they’re offering electives and students aren’t taking them, or if they’re rebranding their courses and not getting a lot of applicants, they risk going out of business. They play a role in providing leadership, but they obviously have constraints in terms of what the market signals are telling them. I had this discussion with a Dutch school some years ago that created an MBA in sustainability and found that appetite from students and employers was quite limited. If one of their obligations is to make sure that their students get reasonable jobs after graduation, then they need to rethink that.

You’ve mentioned here and in your articles that there is currently no consensus on what the focus on sustainability should involve and how it should be measured. What is your opinion on why this consensus has not yet been reached?

I think it’s because the end goals are still not perfect, but they’re much more evident than the ways to reach them. We could draw a parallel with climate change. Putting aside denialists, the fact is there is very little societal, scientific and even less political consensus on how to reach our goals. Is it with carbon taxes? Offsets? Decarbonization? I believe that offsets are a starting point but that we also need to change our lifestyles in absolute terms to reduce our footprint. And the debates on all this are still quite fledgling at the moment, and these limitations in understanding the processes make it unsurprising that there are big challenges and disagreements about how to get there and therefore how to provide the tools and the training that supports that. And the metrics are a big part of that. Again, until we can get some degree of consistency on this, we’re going to struggle. And this is not just a sustainability issue but an issue for education in general. I think teasing out the difference between the value added in an education institution to the students versus the filtering effect of attracting the best and brightest students in the first place, for instance, is a much broader and unresolved issue. So until we get some of these wider metrics sorted, we’re going to continue to struggle.

How do you see the future of sustainability in education?

I do think that climate change is the most existential issue of our generation and I don’t see any signs of that going away, as current trends are rather in the other direction. And we’re seeing not only its environmental but also the economic and social consequences in a large number of fields. And that is increasingly integrated whether it’s in the insurance sector or in banking with social investments. There is a growing number of financial intersections with these trends. So surely I don’t see sustainability education going away. But, as I’ve said, we still need much more rigor in how that is translated into practical steps and how those things are best researched and taught. That is one of the big challenges for the next generation. Business schools, as I said, should have a big role, but I don’t see them as the primary drivers of that. We absolutely need them to do more in thought leadership and teaching, but we also need a much wider factor until we get more aggressive government action and regulation. That’s really going to be the lever and a catalyst for change.

[1] The FT’s Responsible Business Education initiative is based around a survey of international business schools on how they incorporate sustainability into their programs. See results.


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