Undergraduate degrees at the University of Sydney Business School currently lack a compulsory subject that interrogates the role of commerce in society, rigorously grounded in economic history, economic theory and the philosophy of commerce.
Previously, the compulsory course BUSS1002: The Business Environment, made some headway into this, focusing on how society affects the firm and drawing on literature mainly from commerce scholars. Under the new degree restructuring however, this has been axed.
Arts students are acquainted with critiquing their subject disciplines, from questioning historiography to scrutinising accepted political theory. These skills, and more importantly, the analysis itself, remains vital for Business students.
Learning about the philosophy of commerce ensures the practice of commerce isn’t solely a technical one, but is underpinned by solid reasoning about why we practice finance, marketing and management in society. For first-year students, philosophy would also clarify (or not) that they have made the right decision in studying a commerce degree. It also helps students with learning how to make strong arguments, avoid errors in reasoning, and develop (their own) solid foundations of ethical principles.
Truly interrogating opposing viewpoints does not just benefit critical thinking in the classroom; it also means there is less risk of siloing knowledge on campus, where students from different faculties fail to understand each other’s perspectives. In the workforce, it allows the empathy and logic needed to consider the viewpoints of different stakeholders.
It is equally important that students learn and critique competing views of how the economy functions. While it’s true that Business school students are allowed to take interdisciplinary electives from, for example, political economy, the fact that many Business school students take a CPA track means that there is usually little space in their degree structure for electives. Additionally, many Arts units that are available focus on a left-wing critique of business in the economy, rather than considering both left and right arguments. Making the unit compulsory, rather than an elective, also ensures that it is not just those who opt-in who benefit from critically thinking about their discipline.
Unlike the political economy major which focuses on left economic thought, students should be given access to an array of competing arguments from the left, centre and right in economics, and through evaluation, come to their own conclusions. Asking questions about economics is relevant to all majors in the business school. Does business always occupy a positive space in social innovation and philanthropy? Does neoliberalism work? Who benefits and who loses from our decisions as managers?
As future leaders in the private sector, it is key that students gain a thorough understanding of economic history so that past mistakes are not made again. It would be beneficial for a course to devote time on learning in detail about what kind of fiscal and monetary policy mistakes caused the Great Depression, the kinds of predatory loan practices and cognitive dissonance that caused the Global Financial Crisis and the speculation and asset bubbles that caused the Asian Financial Crisis. Similarly, it would be helpful to look at how poor economic decisions in one country (America in the Great Depression) can cause political instability in another (the rise of the right-wing in Japan in the 1930s pushing Japan into the Second World War).
Lastly, this suggestion strongly aligns with the Business School’s stated commitments and curriculum. In 2016, the Business School signed the United Nations Global Compact-backed Principles for Responsible Management Education which hopes to “systematically transform business and management education beyond the paradigm of shareholder value maximisation, towards responsible management education, research and thought leadership”.
The School’s strategic plan for 2016-2020 states that it will be a “business school that questions the role, responsibilities and purpose of business and of business schools”. Its “business not as usual” approach will be one of “thoughtfully questioning the things taken for granted…to generate better economic and social outcomes”. Furthermore, Graduate Outcome 8 for the School’s Bachelor of Commerce degree states that graduates should have “an integrated professional, ethical and personal identity” where they are “able to evaluate issues relating to business ethics, sustainability and social responsibility in addressing business challenges”. Introducing a new subject of this nature would be the best way to practically implement these outcomes.
Business school students need a compulsory subject to analyse their discipline. Critically analysing a decision to accept certain principles and deny others allows students to feel more resolute in what they choose as a career, how they deal with tricky ethical situations and make them more empathetic people. We need more of that in the business world.