Prioritising sustainability at business school with the University of Sussex Business School Dean Steven McGuire

Sussex dean

In a conversation with the Dean of the University of Sussex Business School, Steven McGuire, he outlines the need for a focus on sustainability in business education. Steven has been Dean at Sussex since 2015, having previously been Director of the School of Management and Business at Aberystwyth University. He has also taught at the University of Bath and on degree and executive-development programmes at the Audencia Nantes Management School and Vlerick Business School. Here’s what he had to say:

As a leader within the higher education sector, why are you passionate about sustainability? Has climate change affected your life in any way?

“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children” is a well-known proverb which is still very relevant for the challenges of sustainable living we face today, both as individuals and members of society. This applies as much to higher education as any other business or industry sector. As Dean of the University of Sussex Business School, I am conscious that the young people coming to us for their education from all over the world are the very ones who will face the full consequences of our past and current actions; actions which have fuelled rapid climate change and caused the endangerment and extinction of many species.

Our students also reflect back to us how societal attitudes to sustainability and the consequences of climate change have transformed.  There is an increasing consensus that we need to take real and urgent action to tackle climate change, and actively change our behaviours to live more sustainably.

A little can go a long way, and ensuring your day-to-day behaviour aligns with a more sustainable lifestyle is key. For me, I try to live modestly. My small family is a one-car household, and we walk a lot and try to minimise travel wherever possible. I also try to ensure that my daily home and working practices minimise consumption.

Why is sustainability so important to business school students, and how does Sussex stand out from the rest in terms of sustainability?

Business models are changing rapidly in response to the climate emergency. For example, demands from clients and customers in relation to sustainability is increasing – you just have to look at how the fashion world is starting to move away from fast, throwaway fashion, towards the principles of the circular economy. Global supply chains are also considering how sustainable practice is embedded in every stage of the chain.

As a business school, we continue to recognise these developments in business towards more sustainable models, and we understand the importance of teaching future leaders how to manage this change. Few business schools have the depth of knowledge and history of researching areas like sustainability that the University of Sussex Business School does, and we pride ourselves on preparing our students to be able to adapt and manage a more socially responsible society across all sectors.

In fact, at Sussex, we have led the way on sustainability research since the 1960s, and the business school has been teaching on the issues around sustainability for many years. It is one of our core strengths which attracts students from around the world. For example, our world-leading Science Policy Research Unit has just partnered with top-ranking Seoul National University to deliver a tailored Sustainability and Innovation summer programme in collaboration with local, sustainable businesses.

Our unique strength is our understanding of innovation and the role that governance and policy play in sustainability, which is critical in transforming business and society towards collective sustainable practice. In another example, our award-winning interdisciplinary research led by Fiona Marshall, Professor of Environment and Development, has helped to shape sustainable waste management policy and practice in India’s cities, with benefits for the environment and individual livelihoods.

Notably, the University of Sussex has also launched its own sustainability strategy to be one of the most sustainable universities in the world. Sussex was recently ranked among the top 50 global universities for delivering on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.  The University is also proud to be ranked joint 37th in the Times Higher Education (THE) World Impact Rankings 2022 out of more than 1,400 institutions. The score means the University is the seventh highest-performing institution in the UK.

How can business schools help to contribute to a better society?

Business education has a lot to offer to society, and it’s not enough to want to make change happen. You need your arguments to be grounded in sound evidence, understand corporate governance and responsibility, and be equipped with the appropriate tools to present a convincing case to policy and decision-makers in business and government.

We give our students those tools and techniques that allow them to advocate for sustainable change. It is critical to be able to present a strong business case and understand how sustainable business impacts the bottom line, both in the long and short term.  We teach our students to be critical thinkers. They are the potential managers and leaders of the future. To have a grounding in sustainability as it applies to business practice combined with applicable skills such as project management is vital for any sustainable business strategy or project to succeed.

Why is sustainability important for business students?

It’s important to remember that our students are citizens too, as well as future employees or entrepreneurs.  Increasingly, companies and employers expect business graduates to have knowledge of sustainable business practice. Business and industry must become sustainable as rapid climate change, and excess consumption is having a real and measurable destructive impact on our global natural resources. Systems are interrelated, and business students are keen to help business to solve these sustainability issues and complex challenges.

At our school, the Principles of Responsible Management are embedded into our curriculum so that students are able to understand the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) and consider how they apply to business practice.  Insights from research by Dr Adrian Ely at SPRU have been adopted by the UN and are shaping the way that governments worldwide use science, technology and innovation to reduce poverty and achieve the UNSDGs. Dr Shova Thapa Karki has done a lot of work at the intersection of entrepreneurship and sustainable development, with a focus recently on female entrepreneurship.

We are also making sure that sustainability will be embedded into the curriculum on a much wider scale, in our teaching and as part of our programmes across all disciplines. For instance, we are doing a lot of work on sustainable finance now, advancing our understanding of how finance can be part of the solution to global challenges rather than the cause and ensuring this is intertwined into the finance modules at the school. Dr Panos Tzouvanos has published work on the value of investing in firms with better environmental records.

In general terms, which challenges do you think higher education might face in the coming years?

The pandemic has brought about permanent changes to the global education markets as well as business and society, and this has and will continue to impose challenges on the higher-education sector. For example, we have witnessed how the pandemic and other geopolitical factors are impacting delivery and global supply chains. The energy crises and heightened geopolitical tensions are bringing new challenges to the traditionally liberal and cosmopolitan education sector. And of course, restrictions on travel and study abroad have brought shifts in our international student markets. Considering this, business schools need to keep abreast of what is happening in the world and adjust their strategies accordingly for the benefit of their students and wider communities.

Ultimately, we must not forget that the future is always uncertain, sometimes more so, sometimes less. We can always prepare for challenges to the best of our ability, but it is also important to take situations as they come. As a leader within the higher-education sector, I believe it is important to accept that sometimes you won’t always be right, despite your best efforts. Instead, when faced with challenges, learn from previous lessons, adapt, and move on.

See more articles by Stephanie Mullins.