Why is theology better funded than business and management?

Despite being the second largest REF submitter, business ranks 30th of 34 disciplines on research income per FTE, says Robert MacIntosh

July 4, 2022
A businessman in three-piece suit holds an English bowler hat, and umbrella in front of the London Stock Exchange. To illustrate that business and management studies should be better funded
Source: Getty (edited)

The relationship between business schools and their parent universities has always been characterised by a certain amount of tension over budgets, ideology and intellectual standing. But the UK’s recent Research Excellence Framework casts some interesting light on these age-old debates.

First, whatever people might assert about the academic depth of business and management as a discipline, it is clear that its teaching is informed by masses of research. With 108 universities returning about 6,600 staff to the REF, it was responsible for the largest submission of any discipline except for the combined engineering panel (which submitted 7,400 staff). Research is happening at business schools in every part of the UK, at universities that vary enormously in size, history and character.

This scale – accounting for 16,000 outputs – meant that the REF assessment panel had to be both big and broad. The panel chair, Robert Blackburn, told last month’s Chartered ABS Research Conference that the constant refrain among the panel was to be “robustly generous” – which perhaps reflects past failures to talk across methodological boundaries. The sense is growing of a multifaceted subject that is increasingly united in purpose, if not approach.

Still, the census data tell us that we in business and management – in common, no doubt, with other subjects – are still being inherently cautious in choosing what to put forward for evaluation. Just over 1 per cent of outputs were books, yet we know that many of the big ideas that have shaped business management over the decades have been presented in monographs, where there is scope to express complex concepts and build an argument. In contrast, peer-reviewed journal articles accounted for 97 per cent of all the outputs reviewed. So our field seems fixated on the hit single rather than the concept album, and perhaps this comes at a cost, in terms of both groundbreaking ideas and accessibility to non-academic audiences.

Business and management is sometimes criticised, too, for its supposed over-reliance on journal rankings. One of these is produced by the Chartered Association of Business Schools, the body I chair. The REF offers the potential to study how reliable such metrics are; a forthcoming analysis from the business and management panel will review the correlation between journal ratings and the REF ratings of the papers that have appeared in them.

Nevertheless, with an increasing number of universities becoming signatories to the Declaration on Research Assessment (Dora), which abjures the use of journal rankings to judge individuals, it is more important than ever to re-emphasise that the Chartered ABS’ Academic Journal Guide is named as such for a reason. It is a guide, pure and simple. Its true purpose is to assist researchers to make informed judgements about the outlets they may wish to publish in. It was never intended to be predictive of the quality of individual papers, and there is no reason for business and management to be any more metrics-driven than any other subject.

One area, however, where the REF does highlight a systematic distinction between business and management and other subjects is funding. It is often assumed that business and management is awash with cash, but the reality is very different. Despite being the second largest community of researchers across the 34 units of assessment, business and management research ranks 30th in terms of research income per FTE per annum, and 28th in terms of doctoral awards.

Yes, business research typically has lower operating costs than medicine, science or engineering. And yes, business schools generate cash from student fees, particularly high international fees: one in three international students in the UK studies business. But that money cross-subsidises a wide range of other disciplines and services in universities. When you account for the number of staff involved, it is clear that we in business and management are being starved of the time and resources available in other disciplines.

The consequence is that there are fewer research assistants and postdoctoral researchers in business schools relative to those disciplines that attract more external funding. The highest-ranked subject in the REF, clinical medicine, receives 26 times more per head per year than business and management does, yet we know that solving the big societal challenges, such as the pandemic, sustainability and national productivity, depends at least as much on expertise in logistics, innovation, consumer behaviour and business models as it does on science.

Perhaps a more meaningful contrast is with theology and religious studies. Like business and management this subject does not require equipment, lab technicians or consumables. But it secures 47 per cent more funding per person per year and ranks second only to chemistry in terms of doctoral completions.

As the REF results underline, business schools already do research that positively impacts both the economy and those working within it, in everything from corporations to NGOs and social enterprises. Imagine how much more they could do, though, if they were better supported.

Expecting the same level of funding as clinical medicine and the other STEM disciplines would be unrealistic. But we could surely expect to see as much importance placed on supporting research in business and management as on that in theology departments?

Robert MacIntosh is chair of the Chartered Association of Business Schools and pro vice-chancellor at Northumbria University.

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Reader's comments (7)

What this does not also say is that business schools are uniformly pillaged by their institutions. According to your own article (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/business-schools-squeezed-more-cash-despite-enrolment-woes) business schools pay 62% of their income to their parent institution. Think of it this way ... more money from a business student's tuition goes to subsidise other students' education. Over 60% of foreign students study business (with the vast majority in MSc programmes) simply because that is the fastest and biggest way to keep the beast alive (and hence one reason I have argued for breaking up universities -- https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/universities-must-be-forced-compete-alternative-models). This invariably also leads to spillover effects of higher teaching load -- business schools have higher average teaching workload in terms of the number of courses and the number of students taught -- and hence less time to generate quality scholarship and other activities. Business schools are the university equivalent of teh coal stokers in the Titanic. There is also the belief that business schools are not as intellectually 'solid'. However, the vast majority of Nobel Prize winners in Economics are associated with business schools (and ironically far less often with economics departments). It is also one reason universities in the UK keep a stranglehold on business school operations (via the use of pliant deans) because they know that the golden goose needs to be tended by someone loyal.
I agree, but feel compelled to point out that there is no such thing as a Nobel Prize in Economics.
Indeed! I actually thought about that when I wrote it!
Whether intended as such or not, the ranking of journals in the ABS's "guide" is widely used at business schools for the purposes of recruitment, tenure, promotion, and financial remuneration. The sooner that ABS stops producing it, the sooner these unsavoury practices will stop.
To be replaced by what? Whims and fancies of some head of the department or the Dean? This will only create plenty of opprtunites for people to de discriminated against, encourage sycophancy, breed more yes people. Unless there is a clear and transparent system for progression and promotion, where decisions are made by a committe that can think for itself, the ABS list is pretty much the only transparent thing there is. The ABS publishes exactly how they come up with the rankings, the panel etc. will the system that replaces it be as trasparent? The unsavory practices are not the result of the ABS list it is the result of unethical, biased management who care nothing about the careers of the people they manage whose attitude is take it or leave it.
Come on! Dig your heads out of the sand! Business schools are financed by contract research business corporations and organizations. And by successful alumni. This is to whom they in turn contribute. "Research" and "researcher" have different meanings in Colleges or Schools of Business. You also need to control if Economics is located in Business of Social Sciences. These authors need a course or more in research....
Actually business schools in the UK have very little alumni donations and do hardly any contract research (far less than in Engineering or Computer Science). Think of it this way, you would have to be an idiot to give money to an institution that is faced with a 62% tax rate on revenues (cash flow is fungible). If you look at major US business schools, they actually lose money on their teaching operations because teaching revenue is taxed (at about 25% in the US) while endowment income is not taxed (so schools have an incentive to raise money and not teach too many students). This is why you have so many endowed professorships as the part of the professor's income that comes from endowment is 'tax free'.