· Features

The inclusion of ethics in MBA courses recognises they are a part of life, not apart from it

Some media coverage would have us believe that we are in an era not just of public opprobrium for 'fat cats' and 'sharks' (who'd want Fred the Shred's reputation now - or an MP's?), but also where business schools have suddenly begun to insert ethics into the MBA curriculum to help the next generation mend our sinful ways. Yet cause and effect is rarely so simple. Who, for example, was borrowing all that money? Human beings have many unsavoury tendencies: our lazy preference for simplification over clarification is only one of them.

In reality, of course, ethics and corporate social responsibility were not completely unknown on business school campuses before 2008. Back in April 2003, The Guardian published an article, ‘In Sustainable Company’, which highlighted the introduction of specialist postgraduate courses at several universities. The past is another country, of course, where prospective student demand drove this provision and the world was the alumni’s marketplace to command. Forum for the Future’s Sara Parkin saw the thinking of a generation of students – raised in the age of Naomi Klein’s No Logo and anti-globalisation protests – was ahead of faculty staff.


In 2010, business school applications are still healthy, although it is debatable whether students are genuinely embracing the MBA despite the blows to trust in corporate life, or merely strengthening their CVs in a tricky job market. And ethics are back on the media agenda: a recent joint Association of MBAs/Durham Business School research report, The Post Downturn MBA: An Agenda for Change, explored the attitudes and perceptions of business schools, their students and alumni. Business schools rated ethics as the most important topic in ‘today’s economic climate’ and sustainability fourth: students placed neither in their top five. Yet alumni saw sustainability, CSR, ethics and governance as the factors that had assumed most importance since they graduated. (Interestingly, those graduating before 1970 gave more weight to ethics on graduation: perhaps ethics are something we are re-embracing, rather than discovering afresh.)


We can draw conclusions to suit our tastes, of course. One might be generational: the ‘social impact’ of business has been of growing importance for some time, and a recession has merely refocused the spotlight. But perception is also in the eye of the beholder: the survey also showed that schools see a greater emphasis on ethical issues in their curricula than their students.


But, looking at how ethics and sustainability are covered in the curriculum, there’s another question. If you believe business has an ethical dimension, surely it applies across the board – unless you see ethics as a publicly prudent fig leaf?  The 2010 AMBA/DBS survey found only 62% of schools teach sustainability and 46% ethics as integrated/ thematic elements. Back in 2003, Sara Parkin commented: "A lot of the CSR courses are looking at it as a specialist issue when what is needed is for sustainable development principles to be embedded in all walks of life." I was reminded of James McGregor Burns’ stentorian opinion that: "Divorced from ethics, leadership is reduced to management and politics to mere technique." In that light, teaching ethics as an elective module (as some schools do) is itself an ethical decision that says ethics are something we might consider – but only if we want to. Or to quote Martin Luther King: "Cowardice asks the question, 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question, 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question, 'Is it popular?' But, conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?'".

As one of the placard wavers in Copenhagen at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference has it, "There is no Planet B". Whether or not we are causing climate change, we don’t have a spare planet to hand. So are ethics part of environmental considerations or not? And the environment is not the only potential ethical flashpoint; today’s world can easily spring ethical dilemmas (and journalists, pressure groups and Facebook campaigns) on tomorrow’s leaders. To include ethics in the business curriculum is to recognise that ethics – like business – are a part of life, not apart from it. With an understanding of ethics as part of their education, the choices of tomorrow’s leaders – whichever road they decide to take – might be informed ones.

Robert Terry is founder and managing director of ASK