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Business & economics Education

Creating a supportive research culture

Anne-Wil Harzing is Professor of International Management at Middlesex University. Since joining the Middlesex University Business School, Anne-Wil has been working with colleagues to foster a more supportive and collaborative research culture. Here, she outlines some of the strategies that have proven successful.

After spending thirteen years in Australia at the University of Melbourne as PhD director, Assistant Dean RHD and Associate Dean Research, I was looking for a new challenge. Rather than join another traditional research university, I wanted to work somewhere where I felt I could make a real difference. Middlesex University Business School in London fit the bill perfectly, with its strong focus on research that matters – both to society and to its students – and a vision that focuses squarely on “transforming potential into success.”

Middlesex is a post-1992 university. Hence initially its main focus had been on its teaching mission. However, over the years its research performance continued to grow. In 2014 it was ranked #38 on the REF power ranking for Business & Management in the UK (out of 101 universities). It was the 2nd ranked post-1992, very narrowly pipped by Portsmouth. It also outranked a lot of “red-brick” universities and even a few Russell group universities. Even so, its strong academic staff potential meant that there was considerable scope to improve even further; in 2014 I was therefore appointed to help transform its research potential into success.

Collective research support initiatives

Working closely with Deans Anna Kyprianou and Joshua Castellino, Research Deans Richard Croucher and Stephen Syrett and Departmental Research leaders we set out to provide an even more supportive environment for research in the Business School, actively fostering a collaborative rather than a competitive research culture. This didn’t mean spending bucket-loads of money, but rather to develop a range of targeted, but strategic initiatives. In addition to the “standard fare” of research allowances, conference funding, a research leave scheme, departmental research seminars, and departmental newsletters, this included:

  • Research Facilitation Funding: Academics can apply for seed-corn funding (up to £2,500) for developing impact, small research projects, knowledge transfer, and larger funding proposals, as well as feeding research into teaching. To date over fifty projects have been supported.
  • Research Clusters: Support to develop new and existing research groupings within the Business School and across the University to facilitate collaboration in funding applications, research networks, impact, knowledge exchange and published outputs. 
  • Research lunches/coffees/teas: An informal – walk in walk out – monthly platform to discuss anything related to research. Features updates by the Research Dean, Research & Cluster Leaders, and Q&A. Allows academics to get to know colleagues [especially outside their own department] and find research collaborators.
  • Staff development groups: 6-weekly opt-in meetings for five groups of 5-8 academics, with the specific group size and composition varying depending on availability. These meetings are explicitly multi-purpose/­flexible in format. We provide feedback on each other’s draft papers, research ideas, and R&Rs. However, meetings also serve as a forum to meet new colleagues, solicit advice, and have (un)scheduled discussions on any academic topics. Every round is supported by a follow-up email with collated resources related to the topics discussed in the five meetings. This means everyone benefits from the discussions in each of the groups even if they haven’t been able to attend one of the rounds.
  • Research methods skills development: A range of research methods training courses on topics such as action research, multi-dimensional scaling, econometric methods, working with big data. Usually organized by one of the Research Clusters.
  • Wider academic skills development seminars on topics such as Networking and External Engagement for Academic Success, Publishing in Management Education journals and How to ensure your research achieves the impact it deserves.

Individual support for academic career development

These collective events are supplemented with individual career development meetings for junior staff, as well as “on-tap” email support for quick questions and advice on anything related to academic work. From March 2016 onwards, these efforts have been supported by my blog on all things academia, with postings in the following categories: Academia Behind the Scenes, Academic Etiquette, Announcements, Classic Papers, Conferences, CYGNA, From my Inbox, Middlesex, Positive Academia, Publish or Perish Tips, Research Focus, and That’s Interesting. In the first three years the blog has seen more than 170 postings, including guest posts by some of my co-authors and Middlesex colleagues.

Taking it to the next level: Writing bootcamp

In 2018, we decided to take to take the School’s research support activities to the next level by organising a Friday-to-Sunday off-site writing boot camp. This boot camp was intended to help Business School academics on the cusp of submitting a paper to one of the top journals in their field to fine-tune and polish their papers. Thus in the third week of January eighteen academics spent a wonderful weekend at the amazing Cumberland Lodge working on their papers, an experience which was repeated in July with another twenty-three academics.

The feedback provided by the attendees illustrates that the supportive atmosphere in which these events were run was much appreciated. Our Middlesex academics enjoyed each other’s company and readily spent time on each other’s papers; this is unlikely to happen if your university’s culture encourages cutthroat competition!

“I really appreciate the opportunity to interact with colleagues (junior and senior) during both formal working time and ‘informal’/social time (at meals and in the evenings). Equally important, the boot-camp really strengthened my sense of belonging to a supportive research community at MUBS. Thank you so much for engendering this core aspect to help build my confidence professionally.”

 “The best thing for me was the non-judgemental nature of the bootcamp. No one needed to get nervous of their own work. Everyone was so supportive, encouraging each other to reflect on and sharpen their arguments, and presenting the best work possible for their target journals. Everyone shared their work and their thoughts about their papers freely, knowing that they will get constructive feedback from peers and mentors.”

CYGNA: Supporting Women in Academia Network

A lot of my female Middlesex colleagues are also participating in CYGNA, a network supporting female academics in the broad area of Business & Management. CYGNA is meeting five times a year at different London-based universities for half-day events, with seminars focusing on academic and personal development as well as plenty of opportunities for networking.

A quick overview of all the topics covered can be found here. We also maintain a readings and inspirations section for female academics and have a Twitter hashtag #cygna_london. In May 2019 we’ll have our first “branch” meeting in Leeds and we will celebrate our 5th year anniversary with a full-day writing bootcamp at Middlesex University in September 2019.

A bumper year for international research rankings

Obviously it is impossible to conclusively establish a direct link between investing in a supportive and collaborative research culture and improved research outcomes. That said, it is probably no coincidence that Middlesex University in general – and the Business School in particular – have dramatically improved their position in the two major international research rankings: the Times Higher Education ranking and the ARWU Shanghai ranking.

Times Higher Education – Success all around

Middlesex University was featured in the Times Higher Education (THE) ranking for the first time three years ago when the list was expanded from 400 to 800 universities; Middlesex debuted in the 600-800 band. We quickly moved up to 501-600 in 2017, to the high 400s of the 401-500 band in 2018 and to the low 400s of the same band in 2019. We are hoping to rank in the top-400 in the 2020 ranking, which will come out in September 2019.

Figure: Middlesex THE ranking 2016-2019

Likewise, we entered the THE Young Universities ranking for universities under 50 years of age when it was expanded from 100 to 150 universities in June 2016. Although we have been ranked in the 101-150 band for the last three years, we have moved up within that band every year. It therefore looks like we are on track to be ranked in the top-100 in June 2019. We might even become the top-ranked UK University in the Young Universities ranking.

In the 2019 THE ranking, Middlesex also ranked for the first time in no less than three of the four main disciplines that we are active in: Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities and Clinical, Pre-clini­cal & Health, with a world-wide top-300 ranking for the Social Sciences. We also ranked in four of the five specialised subject rankings that THE publishes: Computer Science, Business & Economics, Education, and Psychology, only narrowly missing out on a ranking in Law because we didn’t meet the hurdle for the minimum number of publications.

ARWU Shanghai ranking – Business School success

Since August 2018 we are also ranked in the ARWU Shanghai top-1000 universities worldwide. This is a remarkable achievement given that 70% of the ranking is determined by criteria such as publications in Science and Nature and Nobel Prize winners amongst staff and alumni. These criteria do not tend to favour the Social Sciences, Humanities, and Engineering, disciplines that make up the bulk of our research activity. Universities highly ranked in the general ARWU ranking typically have a strong presence in the Life Sciences and Natural Sciences, disciplines that are not substantively represented at Middlesex.

As a result, the ARWU Shanghai subject rankings are a much better yardstick for our research performance. These rankings focus largely on Web of Science publications, field-normalised citations, international collaborations and the number of publications in a small set of top journals in each field. In 2018, Middlesex was ranked in no less than seven of the eight subject rankings related to Business School: Management, Business Administration, Tourism, Economics, Law, Sociology and Political Science, only narrowly missing out on a ranking in Finance because we didn’t meet the hurdle for the minimum number of publications.

Figure: Middlesex ARWU Shanghai ranking for Sociology

We are the only post-92, and one of only ten universities in the UK overall, to be ranked in all seven subject areas. In Management, Business Administration, Tourism, and Sociology, we rank on par or even above many redbrick universities, as well as quite a few Russell group universities. The screenshot above shows our ranking in Sociology, reflecting Middlesex’s strong focus on the Sociology of Work, with research topics such as return migration of highly skilled migrants, the living wage, modern slavery, corporate citizenship in South Africa, microfinance and women’s empowerment, social security and welfare reform, and social and sustainable enterprises.

These research topics reflect another thing that attracted me to Middlesex University Business School. It is one of the most diverse institutions I have come across, both in terms of disciplinary background and in terms of national background. Many of my colleagues have a background in the broader Social Sciences and Humanities representing disciplines such as History, Political Science, Law, Education, Sociology, Psychology, Public Policy, and Development Studies. They also come from all corners of the world; we often have as many nationalities as participants in our meetings.

More generally, it is interesting to see how rankings that focus purely on metrics provide a result that is quite different from those that focus largely on reputation surveys. Predictably, post-92 universities such as Middlesex do better on the former than on the latter. Hopefully, their research reputation will soon catch up with their strongly improved research performance!

This blog post was originally published on Professor Anne-Wil Harzing’s website,

Social commentary

Changing the debate about social mobility

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the modern university, Vice-Chancellor Professor Tim Blackman urges policy-makers, business leaders and the media to work with Middlesex ‘to change the world’.

I am incredibly proud of Middlesex University’s rich history because of what it means for the modern university we are today. Our founding institutions are part of a North London story of pioneering industrial innovation, professional practice and the arts, as well as shaping the idea of the polytechnic itself as a ‘people’s university’ serving the needs of its locality.

For us, the creation of modern universities in 1992 was not about polytechnics ‘becoming’ universities, as if the pre-existing old universities were the model to follow, but of modern universities demonstrating the huge contribution of a socially relevant higher education, and especially its neglected capability to drive productivity and social mobility.

“The modern universities are distinctive in having this mission of mass social change.”

At Middlesex, we remain true to our polytechnic origins in our approach to high-quality practice-based learning and the importance of high-level skills as well as expert subject knowledge. At a time when some forecasters predict that the millennial generation will be the first in the country’s history to face living standards lower than the generation before them, our aim is to prove them wrong by our graduates being agents of change, adding tremendous value to the companies where they work, pioneering innovation in the public services and creating the businesses of the future.

Huge potential

This cannot just be a project about young people from already privileged backgrounds going to very selective universities, for whom the transition from school to university is taken for granted. It is also about the huge potential of young people and adult learners who have not enjoyed these advantages, for whom university is a step into a totally new experience full of opportunities their parents could never have imagined for themselves.

The modern universities are distinctive in having this mission of mass social change, but we share with the old institutions their commitment to high standards of scholarship and the outstanding quality for which British higher education is known around the world.

This quality has enabled Middlesex to export our courses and awards abroad, at our campuses in Dubai, Mauritius and Malta, and with partners around the world, as well as attract thousands of international students every year to our London campus. We started out meeting the skills needs of Londoners and are now a global institution running a trade surplus with the rest of the world.

Yet despite this success we face some deep-rooted prejudices, such as that international students are immigrants whose numbers must be controlled, that students coming to university with BTECs rather than ‘A’ levels are not prepared for university study, rather than university study not modernising to a 21st century skills agenda, and that social mobility is about a few bright working class kids getting into Oxford rather than all our universities having diverse student communities.

Changing the world

At Middlesex, we engage children as young as 11 through inspiring campaigns such as ‘Make Your Mark’, encouraging them to start thinking about what they could become and their future career possibilities. Just last year our outreach work with some 80 schools in the London Borough of Barnet – London’s largest borough – and elsewhere in London meant we engaged with 10,000 children who are now thinking about their future lives as teachers, scientists, designers, artists and entrepreneurs.

Recently the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility took evidence from a major accountancy firm who explained that after adopting a university blind recruitment process their intake of graduates from Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities declined considerably in favour of other universities. Unfortunately, discrimination against comprehensive schools and modern universities still pervades many sections of our society, writing off potential and denying opportunity.

Our Middlesex students never cease to amaze me with their spirit and determination. Despite all the obstacles many of them face, the vast majority succeed and find meaningful employment. As a visitor said recently: “Middlesex students are like a mirror of London. They are urban, savvy and real and these are the people who will continue to grow our economy now and into the future.”

As we celebrate 25 years of the modern universities, I urge policy-makers, business leaders and the media to work with us to change the world. It is a job that we cannot do just on our own.

This blog originally appeared on MillionPlus


Widening access to HE by developing skills


Make Your Mark is a new campaign developed by the Education Liaison and Outreach team at Middlesex University. The campaign is for 11-16 year olds and draws on a genuine interest in how young people develop their transitional and life skills and how we, as higher education practitioners, can best support them towards successful outcomes. Relationship Manager (Schools and Outreach) Elita Eliades-Ahmed explains more.

Eleven may seem like a very young age to be thinking about careers, but before they know it young people are being asked to make important life choices, such as which GCSEs they will study to lay the foundations for a life of work.

Students from local schools taking part in Middlesex University’s Junior Entrepreneur of the Year competition, held as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week 2016.

Too much, too late

Research shows that a large number of students have already made their decisions about higher education by Year 11 and yet schools and colleges tell us that there is a real lack of accessible skills and careers information for school pupils between the ages of 11 and 16. Students in Year 12 often find themselves bombarded with ‘too much, too late’. By this stage in their student journey they are likely to be overwhelmed by the volume and breadth of information that is out there.

Furthermore, this means that by the time students get the information they need about career paths, university life, and the skills they will need for their future careers and the different routes available into higher education, they may well be right in the middle of studying for their GCSEs. This information and advice gap is reinforced by a recent Ofsted report which warns that the current careers education system could harm the UK’s future economic prosperity.

Tough competition

Through the business connections we have at Middlesex, we know that the world of work is more competitive than ever before. In the future, more jobs will require higher qualifications, and we know there are skills gaps now – particularly in London – that need to be filled.

Our Make Your Mark campaign was developed to inspire children from a younger age to make sure they know what they need to do to tap into the 41,000 new jobs that are predicted to be created in London every year, many of which will require a degree.

Education is also one of the answers to increasing social mobility, with universities such as ours at the frontline of raising aspirations and improving attainment among London’s young people. As a leading widening participation university, we think it is even more important to start the conversation about higher education with students from more disadvantaged backgrounds as early as possible. Leaving it until Year 12 may leave many young people with a mountain too big to climb.

A school pupil tries out virtual reality at our 2016 Big Draw event.

Pathways into HE

Make Your Mark is not just about sharing information about university life and career pathways. It sets out other routes into higher education – such as apprenticeships – and gives valuable insight to help students take steps towards getting a degree or other qualifications.

The campaign website is highly interactive, with features, blogs, listicles, quizzes, tips and lots of insight into what university life and study is all about. Other topics include exam preparation, understanding different learning styles, how to complete personal statements and UCAS forms, and all important budgeting. We are working on new content for the Make Your Mark platform all the time, and a range of fun and engaging events are planned over the next few months both on and off campus.

At 11 years old there are so many unknowns. University may not be for everyone, GCSE choices may be regretted later on and apprenticeship may seem like a more appealing route for some. What is known is that getting a degree will become more important, and young people need to be made aware of this. They also need to know there is more than one pathway into higher education and we hope Make Your Mark will help them to understand how to access these routes.

To keep up to date with Make Your Mark developments visit Instagram and Facebook.


Equality, diversity and HE policy

Professor Kurt Barling Middlesex UniversityFormer BBC reporter and Professor of Journalism Kurt Barling says that while much progress has been made in the UK since universities were reformed in the early 90s, more needs to be done to make higher education truly inclusive.

It probably wasn’t intended this way but the reform of universities in 1992, which allowed the former polytechnics to take their place alongside the older universities, helped begin the transformation of the demographic profile of higher education.

When I started my undergraduate studies in 1980, you’d be hard pressed to find a handful of black or Asian Britons in most of Britain’s higher education establishments. We were curiosities.  The riots in Brixton, Handsworth, Toxteth and St Paul’s had not yet shaken Britain’s establishment out of its lethargy on the issue of social inclusion. Lord Scarman was still to write his seminal report on the dire state of race relations.

Police with shields line up outside the Atlantic Pub during the Brixton Riots of 1981 – Photo by Kim Aldis, via Wikimedia Commons

New responsibility

The Race Relations acts of the 1960s had tried to deal with overt discrimination against the first generation of immigrants. The emphasis in the 1970s metamorphosed into recognising and trying to challenge the inequality of opportunity for the children of that generation of migrants as they passed through the school system. Street battles with the police reinforced the message that a generation of children of migrants believed they lived in a world where hope was absent.

Much has changed to widen participation in the post-1992 sector, but there is still a poor recognition across British universities that with difference comes new responsibility to change what is being taught, who is teaching it, and what norms and values universities are trying to impart to the modern student.

The Macpherson Inquiry in 1999 raised penetrating questions about the way institutions responded to the changes happening in our society, but where the fruits of those changes were not equally distributed.  Big questions still have no clear answers in Britain’s universities. At the last count there were only 85 black professors across the whole Academy.

When the Reverend Jesse Jackson addressed the Middlesex community in 2013, he reminded those assembled that they were being provided with the most meaningful of educations because they were learning how to work together across social and ethnic divides. Martin Luther King no less, he said, went to a similar institution in America that inspired his civil rights work.

What we do at university matters

Here in Britain, it is a work in progress, but what a time to be involved in this project in London. The light of change burns brightly in our city. Whatever your politics, the election of Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London is a powerful symbol of equality, diversity and inclusion. It reflects the moral challenge of our times, which is to learn to live together. To negotiate our differences is an imperative, if the pluralism of our society is to remain vibrant, prosperous and peaceful. History is littered with examples of nations that have failed in this quest.

What we do here at university matters. Middlesex has a powerful heritage of making education matter to those who are less privileged in our society: from the founding of the Art School in Hornsey at the time of the Arts and Crafts movement in the 1880s to the technical faculty in Enfield, which was founded on the back of the electronics revolution led by companies throughout the Lee Valley at the turn of the 20th century.

These technical schools broke out of the centuries old tradition of knowledge for knowledge’s sake and gave students knowledge for a purpose; to use their new found knowledge to go out into the world and make a difference. Now the priorities at universities have had to shift to account for over 50 per cent of the age group entering higher education each year. Getting these young people ready for the workplace through a renewed focus on employability is critical. Equally so is that which we are seeking to teach to meet the needs of the individual and the society beyond.

Middlesex University students
Middlesex University has a diverse student body, with more than 140 nationalities represented.

A need for vision

Putting equality, diversity and inclusion at the heart of a philosophy of education requires a vision and a method. A vision that means it becomes not just empty rhetoric and a method to demonstrate that this is an effective way of shaping the norms and values of a new generation of citizens.

Through decades of legal reform, Britain has striven to establish a level playing field for people from all faiths, ethnicities and social backgrounds to aspire to improve their lives. Universities have important work to do to make a reality of this for those who coming from less privileged backgrounds want to use higher education to improve their lot. We should not forget that the financial commitments made by these new students are also significant and this places new priorities on universities.

Data from the universities regulator in 2013 suggest that 23 per cent of students were from a black and minority ethnic (BME) background – that’s around 356,000. The largest increase in entry rates to university in the period 2006-14 is shown to be black school leavers (Caribbean and African descent), from 21 per cent to 34 per cent.  This is big news. Middlesex is ahead of the curve on this demographic change.

The leaders of tomorrow

But despite this success there is no room for complacency. In April 2016 an analysis of workforce data by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) revealed there are still significant barriers to progress for BME graduates. The unemployment rate for white workers with degrees is 2.3 per cent, while that for BME graduates rises to 5.9 per cent.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Whether they have PhDs or GCSEs, BME workers have a much tougher time in the jobs market. Not only is this wrong, but it is a huge waste of talent. Companies that only recruit from a narrow base are missing out on the wide range of experiences on offer from Britain’s many different communities.”

This reflects our task for our graduates. We are creating the leaders of tomorrow and we must not only help them negotiate difference but to have the moral courage to challenge how future generations view difference in the first place. At Middlesex we must aspire to deliver on the insight of Jesse Jackson that this is a place that transforms the leadership of tomorrow by giving them the tools to understand how to live together today. It is our duty to rekindle hope in each generation and an honourable mission to keep it that way.

On 19 May 2016, Middlesex University’s Centre for Ideas will be hosting its annual conference on the subject of ‘Diversity’. The event will feature a discussion on racism and race between Professor Barling and prominent journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, and Baroness Young of Hornsey will deliver the keynote speech. 

Business & economics

The importance of teaching ethics and CSR

Andrea Werner Middlesex UniversityIn the wake of the Panama Papers scandal, Senior Lecturer in Management at Middlesex University Dr Andrea Werner outlines the teaching practices she believes can develop more socially responsible business graduates.

The leak of the Panama Papers has given unprecedented insight into how wealthy individuals and corporations have used shell companies in so-called ‘offshore tax havens’ to hide money and reduce their tax liabilities. But the Panama Papers are only the culmination of a series of revelations about companies, and individuals, that use elaborate tax structures in offshore tax havens to avoid paying their ‘fair share’ of tax; with big corporate names such as Amazon, Starbucks, Google and Facebook hitting the headlines in recent years.

While a number of activities in ‘tax havens’ are not technically breaking the law, they are increasingly perceived as unethical or immoral. They appear to be ‘unfair’ as they are only open to those individuals and corporations that are wealthy and powerful enough to make use of them. Furthermore, they inflict harm on societies as they reduce governments’ ability to fund schools, hospitals, and welfare payments to the low-paid, families, and vulnerable groups in society; an argument that carries particular weight in times of austerity.

The Panama Canal - Photo by @thyngum (Creative Commons 2.0)
The Panama Canal – Photo by @thyngum (Creative Commons 2.0)

A challenge to educators

The issue of tax avoidance poses a challenge to educators in business schools. It has long been argued that the predominance of the neo-liberal framework and its relentless emphasis on shareholder value and profit-maximisation (to the exclusion of everything else) in business and economics teaching has ‘freed’ students from any moral responsibility (Ghoshal 2005). In fact, it may reinforce students’ perception that alignment of their (monetary) self-interest with the profit-goals of their employers will be the only way to have a successful career in business (Roberts 2001). This may raise the question what guidance Business Schools, having created this moral-free space, are able to give to their graduates when they are faced with morally dubious practices in their workplace (my colleague Professor Chris Mabey asked similar questions following the VW emissions scandal). It is a question that may take on particular pertinence when graduates end up working in environments that actively champion aggressive tax planning practices, either in large corporations or in firms acting as intermediaries for wealthy clients.

Ethical theory counteracts the notion that pursuing one’s self-interest only is acceptable (and even encouraged) in business.

At the same time, the need to teach ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR) to business students has also been recognised over the past few decades, not least for ‘legitimacy’ reasons, as the ability of companies to operate successfully also partly depends on how they and their actions are perceived by wider society. Even though CSR and ethics courses are still primarily taught as stand-alone subjects, they provide opportunity to raise awareness of ethical issues and the importance of ethical values in business, and equip students with critical thinking skills.

I have the privilege of teaching ethics to management students at Middlesex University Business School, both at undergraduate and MBA level. My aim in these classes is to introduce students to range of frameworks and concepts that help them to critically analyse ethical issues in business and work out possible solutions. A key set of frameworks I teach is ethical theory. Ethical theory counteracts the notion that pursuing one’s self-interest only is acceptable (and even encouraged) in business. Even though some students find the teaching of moral philosophy in a business course rather strange at first, they soon recognise the power of these ‘non-instrumental’ frameworks.

Photo by MickiTakesPictures (Creative Commons 2.0)
Starbucks, along with the likes of Amazon, Google and Facebook, has come under fire for its tax practices. The firm responded by changing the way it makes tax deductions and in 2015 it paid as much tax in the UK as it did in its first 15 years of operation – Photo by MickiTakesPictures (Creative Commons 2.0)

Kant and ‘virtue ethics’

Kant’s categorical imperative with its notions of ‘consistency’, ‘universality’ and ‘respect for persons’; and virtue ethics, which focuses on character traits of persons or companies that should inform ethical behaviour, as well as on the notion of communal and individual ‘flourishing and well-being’, appear particularly powerful to students.  I was delighted to see students apply these theories to the issue of Facebook’s tax avoidance in the UK in a recent assignment. Some students argued that tax avoidance is in clear violation of Kant’s consistency principle because, if everyone avoided tax, the whole idea of tax would be rendered meaningless. Other students applied virtue ethics, arguing that tax avoidance is not fair, not responsible and not respectful (as it does not respect the laws of the country), and that the practice only enhances ‘human flourishing and well-being’ for a small set of actors in society, but not for society as a whole.

Another aspect of my teaching is ‘techniques of neutralisation’, which focus on the language that people use to justify and rationalise their actions in business contexts and elsewhere. With MBA students in particular, I discuss how phrases such as ‘Everybody is doing it’, ‘No one will be harmed by it’ and ‘We do it for the shareholders’ – no doubt also heard whenever moral questions around aggressive tax planning have been raised – can be recognised as efforts to neutralise morally questionable actions and what effective responses can be made to these rationalisations.

At the very least, graduates who have been on my courses are no longer able to claim ignorance with regards to wider social consequences of corporate practices.

Finally, I encourage students to think of solutions to ethical issues such as tax avoidance, by thinking creatively about how the companies themselves could tackle the issue but also what the responsibilities of other stakeholders are. What would it require for companies to make ‘paying our fair share of tax’ a CSR commitment? What role have governments to play in tackling tax avoidance? How can consumers and the wider public build pressure to get business and government to respond? These are all examples of questions that I expect students to think through to come up with effective solutions.

Planting a seed

I am aware that my teaching will only plant a seed in students’ minds and hearts. At the very least, graduates who have been on my courses are no longer able to claim ignorance with regards to wider social consequences of corporate practices. But occasionally I receive emails from graduates, in which they tell me how my teaching has made them more aware of the importance of corporate ethical values when choosing their future employer, or from MBA alumni who tell me about the relevance of the frameworks and concepts I taught them for their job roles.  This gives me hope that my students may contribute, even if only in a small way, to a world in which the occurrence of the morally dubious behaviours that the Panama Papers uncovered will become a little bit less likely.