Top of the class?

Phil Parry says business schools and universities are vital to the Welsh economy.

The flurry of attention over the sudden resignation of a controversial Dean at a Welsh business school, has thrown the spotlight once more on the importance of Higher Education for Wales.

Swansea management school endured a tumultuous two years under Professor Nigel Piercy before his sudden resignation on Friday (July 24).

UK media headlines were sporadic about the school before, with stories of expensive “networking” events – such as one at “The Shard” – and the employment of the Professor’s wife and son.

But the school really made the news once Professor Piercy resigned.

Yet the real story is the importance of such business schools – and the Higher Education sector in general – to Wales.

Although it is highly contentious, study after study appears to show the better educated is a workforce, the greater the growth rate.

Education for its own sake is hugely important, and critics say emphasising its central role in the economy undermines this.

But in just one study it was found that graduate skills contributed roughly to 20 per cent of GDP growth in the UK from 1982 to 2005.

A recession intervened soon afterwards, but then economic growth resumed and it seems certain that graduate skills played an important role.

Technological innovation has accelerated, with the use of smartphones, cloud computing and the increased power of desk-top computers.

Students taking notes, often do so on their Ipads rather than with pen and paper.

The use of technology stays with these young people as they progress into the jobs market.

Business schools too are vital to the UK and to Wales.

One of the largest in Wales – at the University of South Wales – has been awarded an excellent rating by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).

Sadly only one UK business school gets into the top ten ranking of business schools in the world – the London school at number 2.

The Financial Times ranking is dominated by schools at US universities with Harvard at number one.

There can be no doubt that the growth of business schools has been phenomenal.

There are more than 130 business schools in Britain and about 13,500 staff are employed teaching students.

In 2001/02 there were 246,780 business and management students.

Ten years later there were 363,860 in the UK.

Today there are about 140,000 and business schools are clearly making a substantial contribution to the development of trained talent employed by British business.

It is against this backdrop that Professor Piercy apparently tried to shove his School of Management at Swansea up the rankings.

His strategy was probably correct, unfortunately his method, apparently, was not.

More than two dozen staff left or moved to other positions and students protested about the effect of the negative publicity on their degrees – with an online petition demanding something be done, collecting more than 1,000 signatures.

But that leads on to another question policy-makers must address.

Universities in Wales and across the UK are increasingly dependent on finances provided by their student numbers.

Institutions are paid – to a large extent – on the numbers of students they educate.

That way, too, they are judged a ‘success’.

It is a self-fulfilling ‘feed-back loop’ because students go to institutions which are riding high in the rankings.

But to rise in those rankings institutions are judged according to their level of research which depends on the quality of academics, who are themselves drawn by ‘big name’ institutions, where the students apply.

So it goes on.

Has the demand to move up those rankings gone too far and led to the excesses we have seen at Swansea?

Let us hope not because the image of Wales suffers and you don’t need to complete successfully a business course to see the effect of that!

Phil Parry is Editor of the investigative website The Eye -

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