Building a world-class business school post-Brexit
Professor Andrew Burke, Dean of the Trinity School of Business, discusses plans for the new school, the importance of teaching ethics in business, and how the government can help Trinity benefit from Brexit
Andrew Burke is the Dean of the Trinity Business School in exciting and challenging times. With the imminent construction of a new €70m on-campus building for the school, and the onset of Brexit, with the inherent challenges and opportunities that come with it, in full swing, Professor Burke certainly has a lot on his plate. Having worked for ten years in the Cranfield School of Management in a “high growth innovation job”, Burke was appointed in 2015 with the tall order of developing the business school into a world-class institution. Burke speaks to Trinity News about his plans for the school, what Brexit means for him, and the role the Irish government has to play in all of this.
After completing a masters in the London School of Economics (LSE) and a PhD in the University of Oxford, Burke went on to work in the University of Edinburgh, University of Warwick and Cranfield, so he is in a suitable position to evaluate how business schools operate in the UK. His perspective is very positive saying that “even at a per capita basis [the UK] have some really top business schools”. For Burke, this raised the question of why Irish business schools aren’t at the same level. Although Burke praises the UCD Smurfit Business School, he acknowledges that even their advances are “fairly recent”.
However, he says that the task in front of him is not an impossible one by any means as some schools have become “top international business schools in a relatively short period of time, around 10 to 15 years”. Burke worked in Edinburgh, Warwick and Cranfield on entrepreneurship programmes because “back in the 1990s there was virtually nothing happening [in Ireland]”. But after 10 years in Cranfield, Burke “had gone from a kind of high-growth innovation type of job” into “a kind of steady stay of operations”.
Burke had decided that he was going to leave Cranfield when Trinity came to him with the opportunity to “develop the business school into a world-class business school”. Burke saw a lot of promise in the offer due to Trinity’s established brand and its “amazing campus” saying: “You could probably summarise Trinity’s growth strategy as simply taking Trinity’s business school to its logical conclusion.”
“They want staff who ‘are research active but first and foremost are here to deliver a good education to students, which is going to enhance the students careers and make a difference to the organisations in which they work’.”
Another reason for Burke’s optimism at the time was because the school’s crop of staff when he arrived were “exceptionally good”. He explains that while the UK universities are of a very high-standard, the student has evolved from being the primary focus of an academic’s job “to being the secondary focus to actually evolving to become an inconvenience to the primary focus, which is to do research”. He continues: “So you end up with a lot of academics whose primary focus is doing research and they see students as kind of something that gets between them and this main job, which is crackers.”
With a strong academic staff in place, who have students as their number one priority, Burke says that the business school’s approach is to “have our cake and eat it”. They want staff who “are research active but first and foremost are here to deliver a good education to students, which is going to enhance the students careers and make a difference to the organisations in which they work”. Burke highlights the importance of not only “rigorous and top-class international research but also relevant research”.
“It’s clear that Burke has a clear idea in mind for the type of skills and mindset he wants Trinity graduates to have.”
Upon taking up the job at the business school, Burke took a hands-on approach from the get-go: he met everyone in the faculty for coffee and gathered information on the school. At the end of the process he came back to the faculty and said “this is what I think you’re about”. What emerged is what the school calls the Trinity DNA. One of the things involved in the Trinity DNA is making sure ethics is a core focus of the school, or as Burke says: “all our students walking out with a moral compass.” The school’s new Bachelor of Business Studies degree has “business ethics running through the whole programme” and all of the school’s masters programmes have business ethics and corporate-social responsibility as a “core course”.
This has not been received entirely positively by the student body as some of the students in digital marketing and finance “have actually kicked up about it”, wondering why they have to study ethics. However, Burke says it’s important because “if we look at the two industries that today need to have people in business with an ethical mindset it’s probably these two industries”. He continues: “The financial crash certainly would have been a lot less or may not have happened at all” if those responsible acted more ethically. Similarly with digital marketing, Burke talks about the harvesting of personal information in the “digital environment”. He says that people have to be aware if companies are doing this for profit and that “without naming names, there’s enough companies out there that aren’t making that very clear”. Personally, Burke “steer[s] clear of a lot of social networks for that reason”.
It’s clear that Burke has a clear idea in mind for the type of skills and mindset he wants Trinity graduates to have. He also has a clear idea for the teaching methods the school should use: the business school wants “explorative and experiential learning” with emphasis on a “real-world business learning environment.” Burke continues that, contrary to some impressions, “Trinity is very advanced in that area. If anything some of the things we need to do more about is changing perceptions.” Nonetheless, the school will make an effort to build on this, particularly “in relation to internships and facilitating projects”.
Finally the school wants to focus on student and graduate welfare. Burke learned from his time in the UK focusing on entrepreneurship when he came across entrepreneurs who were “highly stressed to the point of physical illness and sometimes mental illness”. Burke stresses that “educating students for the business world but not giving them a heads-up” is not good enough, calling it “crackers”. These ideas feed back into Burke’s view that, for faculty members, the interests of students should be put first.
“’I think we’re gradually dispelling this myth but there was a myth that the business school was getting this great chunk of money from College. It’s not getting anything from College.’”
Central to the implementation of these ideas is the construction of a new building for the school on campus. This has been subject to a lot of debate, particularly by those criticising a supposed bias in the way College allocates its funding. Firstly, Burke is very supportive of the idea to build the new building on campus: “It’s the right decision to build the new business school on campus because they could’ve taken an easy decision to go out to the suburbs and get a green-field site.” He continues that although they are “taking the expensive option”, in the long-term “it will prove to be the right decision”.
Asked by Trinity News about the funding of the building, Burke is keen to disprove some criticisms: “I think we’re gradually dispelling this myth but there was a myth that the business school was getting this great chunk of money from College. It’s not getting anything from College.” He explains that the school is getting a €70m loan and sourcing €20m from philanthropy. Continuing, Burke says: “Basically it’s a self-financing plan. And it’s required some structural changes. I mean the accreditation agencies themselves also looked at the plan because they obviously accredit and review the finances of lots of top business schools. So it was important for college that they endorsed it as well.”
On the issue of funding, which is highly topical in political discourse at the moment as the government deliberates over how to fund higher education, Burke discusses the “cynical” financial approach some universities have towards business schools, where they are viewed as “one area of a university where you can actually make some money”. He says that “what often happens is the business school starts to make money and pretty much all the surplus is taken away” without “the resources to grow”. He describes College as “very accommodating” as, while they want to avoid a situation where if “the business school is growing, these other schools have to be starved of cash because the business school has to pay it back”, they have set clear parameters telling the school if they “can transfer this amount of money across in terms of making a surplus of this amount then [the school] can plough back anything else [they] make over and above that”.
He declares that it is contingent on “hitting a 20 per cent growth rate. Which is pretty good by any measure.” Last year the school managed to hit an impressive 43 per cent growth rate. However, for the school to have the best chance of growth, Burke says they need the help of the government. He says: “the Irish government needs to change its mindset on business schools.” Drawing once more on his experience in the UK, he says that “in the UK, they’re quite open about [saying] that business schools are operating in a very competitive environment.”
The UK government grants the school a lot of independence in terms of the allocation of resources, similar to the independence the Irish government gives medical schools, and in return “the business schools generate a lot of surplus funds which in turn goes to cross-subsidised, good departments that couldn’t really survive purely on their own merits”. Burke highlights capital intensive subjects like science and smaller “good departments” like Celtic studies as recipients of this philosophy. He declares that to compete “you need to be getting the top people and the bottom line is that you won’t get a top international business school professor if you’re capping their salary”. Burke concludes that if the government gives business schools more leeway “you’ll have a number of world class business schools here, I’m convinced of that”. However, he did praise the government’s decision to extend the student visa for non-EU students to two years after graduation, allowing non-EU graduates to enter the workforce, showing that the government is making an effort to help the growth of business in Ireland.
“To illustrate the importance of Brexit to the business school, Burke highlights the fact that a business school from Normandy, France is closing down a campus they have in Oxford and moving it to Grand Canal Dock.”
Burke says that Brexit is an opportunity for Irish business schools to enhance their growth prospects but also offers a challenge: he says that Irish business schools could attract both EU and non-EU students due to the British government’s decision to “count Indian students as part of their immigration targets”. He says, according to Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) research, Indian students are “the most put-off by the UK as a result of this”. Burke says that he can see “[Trinity] not only capturing some of that market share from the EU but I see us capturing some of the non-EU [share]”.
However, Burke is aware that British universities will try to counteract this. Burke outlines how they will try to target the US, which he thinks may help Irish business schools. While Irish universities are trying to attract US students, their marketing is “a drop in the ocean over there”. However, the influx of costly marketing campaigns by UK universities will also cause more US students to look at Irish universities as an alternative as they will be “broadcasting” the fact that they’re in the EU. The second method of counteraction offers a more challenging problem: from talking to the deans of UK business schools, Burke has gathered that some of the “big brands” in the UK will “open a campus or operations in the EU”, some of which will be in Dublin. Burke thinks this is not wholly bad as it will legitimise Dublin as the “epicentre” of business in the EU. Crucially though, this will “put a lot of international competition on Irish business schools and indeed universities’ doorsteps.”
Once more, Burke remains optimistic. He says that this will help the job market, as there will be more “financial services and other companies relocating to Dublin”. The evidence of this, Burke says, is that a lot of business schools are flying their students to Dublin in order to sell their masters programmes. To illustrate the importance of Brexit to the business school, Burke highlights the fact that a business school from Normandy, France is closing down a campus they have in Oxford and moving it to Grand Canal Dock. This example illustrates that Ireland is already seeing the impact that the exit of Britain from the EU will have on higher education, and it highlights an important responsibility the government has to maximise the gains Irish business schools can reap from Brexit.
One area in which the government can support Irish business schools is to review current regulations on the pay of academics. Burke notes that “all the business school contracts worldwide are typically 80% contracts and the origin of this is that you want faculty that are engaging with industry, doing consulting and so on”. However, if an Irish business school is competing for an executive education contract, another business school can hire members of staff from Trinity’s programme. This puts the school in an awkward position as in Ireland, the school can’t allocate extra money to staff for working on these contracts due to regulations. For staff members, working for a rival business school is attractive because it allows them to increase their income. While supporting Trinity’s bid might help the school, it wouldn’t be as financially rewarding for them. Consequently, according to Burke, Trinity is forced to say “please guys you wouldn’t mind you know doing some extra work [getting the contract] and by the way we won’t pay you”. Burke says that for Irish business schools, “we need to be able to compete on a level playing field, simple as that”.
In transitional times, Burke offers a pragmatic view of not only Brexit but the prospects of the business school in general. With extensive experience stimulating growth and development in other business schools, he has the skill-set to help the school succeed in a crucial period of transformation. How the school will cope with the challenges it faces remains to be seen, but with an experienced leader at the helm, the pieces are coming into place which should allow Trinity Business School to compete as a world-class institution.
Additional reporting by Oisín Vince Coulter.
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