Do global business schools have a responsibility to act on some of the world’s most pressing problems? For the winners of this year’s Responsible Business Education Awards, the answer is decisively: yes.

In a year of conflict, rising temperatures and social division, the need to be proactive has rarely seemed greater. From a strong range of entries, we selected some impressive institutions.

Iéseg School of Management, Paris

In 2016, the Iéseg School of Management in Paris decided to rethink its approach to sustainability. In a process that included students and staff from across the organisation, it thrashed out four principles for an ambitious strategy: developing skills; running a responsible campus; change-making research; and diversity.

“We formalised a vision, which is to be a unique international hub empowering change-makers, [to be] greener, fairer, more sustainable from an economic point of view,” says dean Caroline Roussel. “It was really the collective vision for the stakeholders.” 

Today, Iéseg’s approach to doing business responsibility is still evolving. But it already defines the learning experience, and is both valued and expected among students. In their first year, all new students — 1,750 last year — go through a sustainability orientation where they play Climate Fresk, a serious game about climate change; learn about the UN Sustainable Development Goals; and spend time volunteering.

Caroline Roussel, dean of Iéseg School of Management, Paris
Caroline Roussel, dean of Iéseg School of Management, Paris © Ieseg

Later, students take part in a four-month consulting project with a sustainability focus and, along with staff, take a mandatory 18-month training covering topics such as climate change and net zero. That culminates in workshops that help departments develop a five-year road map for a sustainability objective, so student learning actively contributes to running the school in a planet-friendly way.

Iéseg’s clear mission means all staff and students are on board, partly because they are attracted to the school’s sustainability credentials, says Roussel. “There is self selection, people who do not share these values do not join.” 

The investment also means the student body holds the school to account, through a lively scene of student associations and clubs dedicated to sustainability. They “do not hesitate to challenge us”, Roussel says. “We show them strong support from the board of the school. We attend student events dedicated to sustainability . . . It’s really important to listen.”

Saïd Business School, Oxford

Saïd Business School, Oxford © Nikreates/Alamy

According to associate dean of MBA programmes, Kathy Harvey, Saïd Business School was serious about sustainability long before it was cool. “Before business schools really started talking about this, we were already redesigning part of the curriculum,” she says.

Now, 51 per cent of the Oxford school’s core teaching contains ESG-related content. Students have recently been examined on complex sustainability related cases, such as The Big Issue homeless magazine and UK infrastructure. All MBA and EMBA students also take a “global opportunities and threats” programme, incorporating complex questions such as the role of stakeholder capitalism.

Kathy Harvey, associate dean of MBA programmes, Saïd Business School © University of Oxford

Since the pandemic, students have been putting those lessons into action by helping local businesses with sustainability challenges. They can draw on the expertise of the university’s research centres, including the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and the Economics of Mutuality Lab.

The sustainability ethos extends to the school building: there are solar panels on the roof and its gas boilers are being replaced by heat pumps, which will cut the school’s carbon use by 144 tonnes next year.

One of the school’s greatest assets, says Harvey, is its integration into Oxford university. Blossoming partnerships with subject specialisms from climate science to engineering help students think more expansively about the problems they are dealing with, and creatively about solutions.

“If you make people think across subjects, some of the big questions in those subjects come up,” Harvey says.

Solar panels on a roof
Solar panels on the roof of Saïd Business School

Aalto University School of Business, Helsinki

Aalto University is just 14 years old. Created from the merger of three Helsinki institutions, specialising in art and design, economics and technology, it takes a holistic approach to sustainability.

“The grand challenges the world faces don’t come in silos,” says dean Timo Korkeamäki. “We have a bit of a competitive advantage compared to freestanding business schools — natural connections . . . we can involve everybody, which I think is really cool.”

Sustainability is embedded in the curriculum through mandatory core courses and overarching learning goals. At bachelor level, the Better Business, Better Society programme introduces the basics of responsible business. For more advanced students, a multidisciplinary masters programme in creative sustainability provides students with the skills and knowledge to address pressing global sustainability challenges.

Students having a discussion around a table
Aalto University, Helsinki takes a multidisciplinary approach © Unto Rautio/Aalto University

Both make the most of the school’s access to diverse and innovative scholarship outside of business. The masters programme is organised with the art and design and chemical engineering schools. Joint professorships, in Co-Innovating for Circular Solutions, and Leadership for Creativity, partner with the art and design school to foster cross-departmental focus on sustainability. “What we get is this multidisciplinary aspect — we’re only just learning the full advantage,” Korkeamäki says.

Accountability is another important part of the process. At the end of classes, teaching evaluations ask specific questions on how sustainability is taught and incorporated into learning. That incentivises teachers to embed these issues and do it well.

“Focusing on sustainability is so natural to us — maybe that’s why we don’t make a big fuss about it,” Korkeamäki adds. “If you, as a student, want to focus on sustainability, there is deep knowledge and expertise available. I’ve been talking to experts in our school and they are adamant about not making sustainability a Post-it note.”

Vrije Universiteit School of Business & Economics, Amsterdam

At Vrije Universiteit School of Business and Economics, links to science are a core part of the responsible business agenda. Strong interdisciplinary ties mean business students draw on the expertise of colleagues working in areas from the environment to econometrics to healthcare. An animating force for the college, says dean Arjen van Witteloostuijn, is “science with purpose”, approached through “collaborating with partners in society”.

Science colleagues have been instrumental in making change happen, in part through a programme called “the elephant in the lecture hall”. Facilitated by a climate movement of academics called Scientist Rebellion, it is pushing for a more practical, active engagement with climate change from the science community.

The project, says Witteloostuijn, is spearheaded by engaged staff members and, while “not official”, is “taken very seriously and is a part of our community”. Scientist Rebellion holds “that the ecological part of sustainability is so urgent that it becomes existential”, he explains. It argues that “in this specific case, universities should not be neutral — in teaching, in impact and research.”

One result of the work is engaged teaching: 93 bachelors degree courses cover sustainable development goals in some way, as do 146 at masters level. They include sustainability management, innovation and science entrepreneurship, while an interdisciplinary research hub helps connect students with other departments.

This is already having an impact beyond the curriculum: notable student-led initiatives include a start-up hub that has trained 300 sustainability consultants. “You need to work across disciplines to work together — societal problems do not present themselves as disciplinary problems,” Witteloostuijn says.

Colorado State University College of Business

© public domain sourced / access rights from Alpha Stock / Alamy Stock Photo

When Colorado State University College of Business came together to develop a vision and purpose, a values-driven mission emerged: business for a better world.

“We spent over a year [on discussions] and it was a very engaged conversation across our college,” says dean Beth Walker. “It’s what we wanted to be known for. If we had this direction, it would unite the college. For people working here, there job would become a calling.”

The school’s mission was grounded in an early MBA, which was “very distinctive”, says Walker, and “really centred on bringing students who wanted to change the world into social ventures.” Colorado State University is already well known for sustainability, with a dedicated school and scholars working with communities most affected by climate change.

Under the new strategy, that focus has grown. Departments are invited to come up with ideas for how their own budgeting and strategy can contribute to a better world. Outreach is also important: a “first generation business summit” tasks high school students with creating business ideas for a better world and devising a programme to partner with social enterprises to improve impact and operations.

“When you talk to students about their interests, it’s humbling,” Walker says. “They want jobs with purpose and we want to be that business school that finds a purpose to align with them.” 

Best overall school: Institutions committed to a responsible ethos
Aalto University School of BusinessFinland
Colorado State University College of BusinessUS
Iéseg School of ManagementFrance
University of Oxford: SaïdUK
VU Amsterdam School of Business and EconomicsNetherlands
University of Cambridge: JudgeUK
Cardiff Business SchoolUK
Centrum PUCP Graduate Business SchoolPeru
Egade Business SchoolMexico
ESCP Business SchoolFrance/Italy/Spain/UK/Germany
Georgetown University: McDonoughUS
Iese Business SchoolSpain
IMD — International Institute for Management DevelopmentSwitzerland
University of California at Berkeley: HaasUS
University of Ottawa: TelferCanada
UTS Business SchoolAustralia
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article