Career Idealists: Motivating Today’s Business Students

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VIENNA, Austria – Despite a deteriorating reputation of managers due to the ongoing financial crisis, business administration and management studies still rank among the most popular academic programs around the globe. According to the German Federal Statistical Office, about 200,000 out of 2.4 million students in Germany were business majors in 2011. This means that almost one in every ten students in Germany was studying business at the time. This large number comes at a high price: teachers only have so much time, and their ability to openly instigate discussions of critical topics in their lectures is limited due to overcrowding of classrooms.

In recent years, especially since the financial crisis, business education has been subject of discussions regarding the development of an inclusive approach of all stakeholder groups and further introduction of ethics-related courses into business curricula. The increased public interest in corporate social responsibility activities is just another proof for that.

Even though many complain about the lack of interdisciplinary teaching at management schools, one could say that business studies are an almost prototypical amalgamation of various disciplines. “It’s simply not possible to teach a course on leadership without using theories primarily deriving from sociology or psychology,” says Oliver Vettori, director of Program and Quality Management at the Vienna University of Business and Economics (WU). He adds: “One of the challenges we are facing is the broad content of the discipline. It’s hard to pass on a general overview of business studies from several theoretical angles. That is why it is often restricted to just one theoretical approach, mostly rational-choice theory based models. And here is where I think that we are missing critical reflection in our curricula.” Regardless of its nature as an interdisciplinary subject, management is being taught quite mono-theoretically because it prioritizes applicability, which is needed for professional practice in business and management.

Without adequate practice of critical thinking in schools, most management school graduates adapt too easily to their employers’ principles as a result. Ethical considerations are downplayed. Only few critical thinkers will be willing to fight these odds during their studies, and most of them are likely to choose a different field of study sooner or later. This is what the German psychologist Lutz von Rosenstiel refers to in an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel as selection in advance. According to Rosenstiel, the practical attitude of teachers and fellow students prompt careerism, which is […]. Since management studies provide a well-defined framework of understanding and abstracting things, most people do not see the necessity to learn to think outside of the box. And as a result, this seems to make it hard for students to develop a capacity to think critically after graduation.

“I have barely seen business students in my class who I felt were there because they wanted to change the world or question any sort of societal structure. At first, I felt they were so conformist,” says Katharina Mader. Mader is an economist and lecturer, who mostly focuses on feminist and gender topics, and teaches economics and business students. She mostly agrees with von Rosenstiel’s theory. She concedes on one point, though: “When I addressed my students directly with controversial questions they were actually quite opinionated and critical. I even felt the urge to take notes when a male business student was passionately arguing in favor of gender mainstreaming in one of my classes, using reasoning I haven’t even thought of myself. I got the impression that they are quite capable of critically abstracting things, if you only let and ask them to.”

WU’s very own “Student Panel Monitoring” evaluation showed that most WU students made the final decision to study business just a few weeks before their first term started. A large portion of them named medical studies and law as their alternative choices. “This clearly shows that most of them are not purely motivated by their interest for the subject… at the beginning of their studies,” comments Vettori. While the failure rates are high in medical as well as in business studies, the drop-out rate is much higher at business schools. The survey also showed that medical students seem to show more endurance, which can be attributed to their intrinsic motivation and interest that a lot of business students seem to lack at the beginning of their studies but develop over time.

Additionally, the ability to sustain oneself financially after graduation is of special interest to the many parents who provide the financial support for their children’s education. In 2011, the Vienna-based Institute of Advanced Studies (IHS) found in its students’ social survey that about half of the students’ budgets in Austria come from family sources. It’s not hard to guess that a lot of undecided freshmen choose the programs that promise well-paid job opportunities. This would not only make their parents proud but also give them the impression that their donations have been a good investment after all. Also, the notion of business studies as a reliable field of study with a high probability of post-graduate success, is also a view largely accepted in society. According to Vettori, “business students don’t really have to explain why they are doing what they are, unlike social sciences and humanities students. Studying business seems reasonable.” Perhaps being asked to give reasons for a choice of study even helps students develop an intrinsic motivation and reasoning.

Even if intrinsic motivation and interest in business topics increase with the amount of time having studied, it doesn’t mean there is an increasing number of students interested in softer business sub-fields that lean towards the social sciences, such as Diversity, Change, or NGO-Management. Instead, the academic sub-fields that see the biggest increase in interest over the course of a student’s studies are Finance and Financial Controlling. The softer sub-fields are still comparably new and probably also need some time to be established to become popular choices for student. WU has decided to give social sciences and business ethics a prominent cross-sectional role in the regular business curricula to make sure that every student acquires a basic knowledge of business ethics and apply critical thinking in as many courses as possible. Vettori thinks it’s most important to enable students to contextualize issues in business and critical thinking is essential for that. “There might have been a shift to a formal commitment to social responsibility in corporations, but few employers would prefer an applicant with a certificate in Diversity Management to a Finance graduate with top degrees”, he admits and adds that business education should not just react to demands from the labor markets and reproduce the current system but also envision the kind of future managers that need to be educated.

“The question is how you define ideals and idealists. I think business students are very dedicated to their ideals, but their ideals are just more application oriented,” says Vettori. Some of the pragmatism, which business scholars are often characterized with, surely holds some idealist ideas. These ideas might not appear to be of the usual idealist kind at first sight but are highly idealist and valuable in social terms due to its results – job creation, for instance – or fuelling economic growth and therefore improving people’s quality of living. As Vettori says, “It’s always a matter of the angle. But who’s to say what’s the right ideal?”

A business school classroom
Professor interacts with his business students. Source:

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