The University of Sydney Business School’s: Disruptive Innovations in Business Education Research Group (DI BERG) mission is to “interrogate the future of business education and how the forces that shape the role and focus of Business Schools influences how we design for a better education”. This blog will show how targeted program evaluation data can support innovation in business education.
Recently, as part of the University of Sydney Business School’s Business Education Research Seminar, in the Teaching & Learning Forum, we (Ryan Menner, Ingrid Larkin and Alexandra Zimbatu) presented a paper titled Beyond the fine print: ambiguity in experiential learning. In this paper we focus our analysis on qualitative data gleaned from experiential learning programs. The data demonstrates how students negotiate meaning in these applied learning experiences. This blog will use some extracts from that data to highlight how to connect program research and evaluation to engage with the forces that shape the role and focus of Business Schools.
Circling back to the DI BERG mission, it critical to ask: What is shaping (Business) Higher Education and why does it matter?
What is shaping (Business) Higher Education?
In Australia, and elsewhere, higher education is increasingly connected to: ‘Job-readiness’ (Australian Government, 2021; Menner & Mayes, 2022; Kikabhai, 2022). Business Schools are unique subjects within the priorities of job-readiness. We are home to a mix of disciplines. Some of our majors or degrees (such as Accounting or Finance) have clear professional pathways, with national & international professional accrediting bodies. But some of our disciplines (such as Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Innovation & Strategy) are more open-ended and professional pathways more diverse. Also, the research of the Business School sits broadly within social sciences, and therefore our work is also shaped by research funding priorities. These priorities are increasingly focused in applied sciences and commercialisation (Alvesson & Benner, 2016).
Why does this matter?
The centrality of job-readiness has particular pedagogical and strategic implications for the way we design, deliver, and value different units of study. In Australia, this has been most recently enshrined in the National Priorities Industry Linkage Fund (NPILF) which articulates three priorities, central to ‘producing’ job-ready graduates:
- Work-Integrated Learning (WIL)
- Industry Partnerships (Australian Government, 2021)
Australian public universities are required to demonstrate their performance against these priorities annually. They must submit metrics, and quantitative & qualitative case studies.
The broader implications to the higher education sector, and in particular its consequences to the academic workforce, have been discussed elsewhere (Menner & Mayes, 2022). In this blog, our focus is, given the NPILF’s emphasis on case studies and data, how our research and evaluation might drive innovation in business school education.
Here’s one we prepared earlier
In 2019, as part of the WIL portfolio at the QUT Business School, a small, discrete program was established called Community-Partnered Social Solutions (ComPaSS). This was done in partnership with two external partners, the Eidos Institute Ltd (Eidos) & the Queensland Government (via the Public Sector Commission). This program placed undergraduate and postgraduate (coursework) Business students in team-based action-research projects. The projects were co-facilitated by QUT and Eidos, and the brief/challenge was designed by a Queensland Government agency. Program participation was co-curricular and tied to a unit of study (BSB009/BSN401 Experiential learning: Innovation, Ideas & Enterprise Skills). The project deliverable and the unit assessment were interconnected, but kept distinct from each other.
Alongside the ComPaSS program, we conducted a feasibility study that collected qualitative data from students, facilitators and other partners. Most of this data collection was Ex Post, but focused on four elements: contextual questions – work, life experience etc.; pre-program – motivation, expectation, intentions; program – experience; and, post-program – change, perspectives. The focus of this paper was on the pre-program and program elements. Central to our findings is the necessity for ambiguity in learning, consistent with the work of Suzawa (2013), who emphasises the connection between ambiguity, exploration, and higher order thinking.
We didn’t want to simulate work or to place students at work, despite ComPaSS being a WIL/experiential learning program. Rather, we wanted them to work in partnership with a number of organisations on a discrete research project. This was because the purpose was to balance academic rigour with a real-world application. It was therefore an alternative to WIL/experiential learning, less centred on the workplace and perhaps more attendant to the complex challenges faced (in and beyond work) by public sector agencies.
We provide a high level engagement with the data, (more substantially reported in our forthcoming paper). Students indicated that the program challenged ideas of success that were more natural to them. It gave them an opportunity to define success in a new way:
“[university] had a very narrow view of what a successful business graduate looked like”Student #1
Students saw this as an innovation, and point of difference in the program design.
“if I was speaking to a business student, it’s quite different from business, but it really helps develop your critical thinking and change your perspective”Student #2
The initial ambiguity experienced by students generally in the program appear in the reflections, and they were central to the intention of the program. In the program design, we exposed students to reflexive components that helped them navigate the ambiguity in their learning.
The reflexive components were intimately tied to the subject matter, which engaged in critical social policy challenges:
“I had that stigma and I wasn’t too sure about how things were going to go and how I overcame that. How I was able to kind of remove that stigma from my own opinion and then also talk about it with other people.“Student #3
Applied learning experiences also reinforced these reflexive components, exposing students to environments that could link their research to the ‘real world’.
“prior to me visiting and seeing the actual outcome – before that, it was just research and we were just seeing it on paper, but being able to see it… That was definitely one of the really rewarding experiences that I had with ComPaSS.“Student #4
This small snapshot of our data shows that the student experience and notions of success in higher education remain contested. The nuances that shape students experiences and success should therefore not be understated. As noted by Jones, Vigurs & Harris (2020), economic rationalism is perhaps not central to our students’ views on higher education (p. 386).
How this data lines up with NPILF Case Studies
These insights generate critical considerations linked to the forces that are shaping Business Education, rather than only focusing on program improvement. How does this data map to a case study about Work Integrated Learning? Under the NPILF there are two types of case studies:
Type 1 – Best Practice: demonstration of best practice or an expansion of a program with a track record of success
Type 2 – Innovation: These case studies are highly innovative by nature and seek to ‘turn the dial‘.
This project would appear to be well aligned to an Innovation Case Study.
Researching the backyard
Acknowledging the forces (the good, the bad & the ugly) of higher education is critical to pedagogical and program design and evaluation. Collecting high quality program evaluation data has given us licence to more strategically position the project in a way that both addresses funding priorities and critically speaks back to the undertones of ‘job-readiness’ that pervades higher education.
Our qualitative sample speaks to the conditions and priorities that are placed on Business Students. Students in this project embraced ambiguity in their learning, despite initial intolerance. Their articulations around work and employment are nuanced, and demonstrate a desire to embrace learning in an applied but creative way, beyond the traditional internship model.
We aim to bring these insights to the fore in a range of ways. In this blog, we hope to galvanise colleagues to collect data that can help demonstrate the nuance of units and program designs; in ways that can speak to (and back) to the forces that shape Business Education. In ways that our research can in and of themselves be the things that help shape business education.
Alvesson, M. & Benner, M. (2016). ‘Higher education in the knowledge society: miracle or mirage?’ In Frost, J., Hattke, F., & Reihlen, M. (eds.) Multi-level governance in universities. Higher education dynamics, 47. Springer, pp. 75-91. https://10.1007/978-3-319-32678-8_4
Australian Government (2021b). National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund: Guidance Document Department of Education, Skills and Employment, viewed 15 June 2023. https://www.dese.gov.au/job-ready/resources/npilf-guidance-document.
Jones, S., Vigurs, K., & Harris, D. (2020) Discursive framings of market-based education policy and their negotiation by students: the case of ‘value for money’ in English universities, Oxford Review of Education, 46:3, 375-392. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2019.1708711
Kikabhai, N. (2022). How educational systems respond to diversity, inclusion and social justice: disability, power, discipline, territoriality and deterritorialization. British Journal of Sociology, 73 (4) pp. 685-698. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-4446.12969
Menner, R. & Mayes, R (2022) ‘Imperfectly contesting expertise – the (re)shaping of academic expertise under industry-focussed funding regimes’ 38th European Group for Organizational Studies (EGOS) Colloquium, Vienna, Austria , 7-9 July.
Suzawa, G. (2013).The learning teacher: role of ambiguity in education. Journal of Pedagogy,4(2) 220-236. https://doi.org/10.2478/jped-2013-0012
About the author
Ryan Menner is an experienced research professional, focusing on public/community sector workforces; knowledge and expertise in organisations; and, science and public research funding. Ryan has held a number of roles across university research portfolios, that involve pure and applied qualitative research; developing and coordinating research strategies, policy and initiatives; research training and supervision of undergraduate research projects; industry/community engagement; and, communicating research findings / public forums. Further to this, Ryan has contributed to a number of university service roles through committee, academic network and union membership.
Currently Ryan is employed as a Research Associate (Associate Lecturer) in Business Co-Design, Dean's Unit at the University of Sydney Business School.