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.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.