To change the banks, we must first change the business schools

Get'em when they're young.

The Libor scandal which has dominated the headlines for the past few weeks is just the latest in a long line of bad press for the banks since the financial crash. While policy makers and commentators have focused on the need for reform of the sector, little attention has been paid to the role of education.  But if we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, business leaders of the future need to develop skills in responsible management and a real awareness of the world around them.

Depending on who you listen to, the answer to the problems caused by the financial system is more regulation, less regulation, renationalisation of the banks or sweeping EU powers, to name just a few. These ideas may be different, but at their heart they have one thing in common – the focus on reforming the structure of the banking system.

Although measures like splitting high street banks from their investment counterparts would go some way to protecting the public from reckless banking behaviour, it does nothing to address that behaviour itself. How can we expect to change the greedy, self-interested culture of banking and prevent further scandals if we do not change the bankers who run the system? More importantly, how can we expect to tackle bigger problems that this culture leads to, such as business activities which have a damaging environmental, social and human rights impact?

Building a more stable, ethical and responsible capitalism requires addressing the rotten foundations on which the upper echelons of the business world are run – management and business education. This requires a massive fundamental mind-shift in the lecture halls of our universities and business schools.

For too long these institutions have remained an undiagnosed part of the problem. Consider business school rankings, used by the business leaders of tomorrow to choose where to study for an MBA - the main factor in the most prominent rankings is how much a graduate from that school earns. Not the quality of teaching. Or the grades students achieve. Greed and the pursuit of profit, regardless of the negative impact a business’s activities might have, are built into the system from the very start.

Since 2008 the UN Principles of Responsible Management Education initiative has aimed to inspire and champion responsible management education, research and thought leadership. Aston University, one of the earliest signatories to these principles, has been embedding ethics, responsibility and sustainability issues into the curriculum and aims to ensure that all students will be social responsibility and sustainability literate by the time they graduate. This includes setting up a range of courses in this area and requiring all students going on placements in business to question how companies are addressing these issues. Since then more and more business schools in the UK and worldwide have been adopting the principles.  Almost half of the UK’s business schools have now signed-up.  Further progress was made at the recent Rio+20 conference. Importantly, the major accreditation bodies made commitments to change their requirements in ethics, social responsibility & sustainability and there is a new initiative setting out additional benchmarks for management education.

But there is still a long way to go. We must ensure all of our business leaders are educated to consider the economic, social and environmental impact of what they do and integrate these issues into their business’ core activities. Business should aim to be not the best in the world, but the best for the world. Only then can we avert future business scandals like those of the last few weeks, and more importantly, future financial crises like the one we have been suffering over the last few years.

Carole Parkes is co-director of Social Responsibility & Sustainability at Aston University.

Photograph: Getty Images

Carole Parkes is co-director of Social Responsibility & Sustainability at Aston University.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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