Do business degrees have a place in universities?

Universities serve many different purposes depending on who one asks. Some of these are obvious; they analyse societal problems and offer solutions to them, they train people to be better, more critical citizens. Some are more disputable such as whether they should explicitly prepare people for careers.

Nonetheless, many people would probably agree that improving people’s career prospects is undoubtedly one of the primary functions universities serve. This is not inherently problematic. There are many activities which are worthwhile which also serve to improve peoples career prospects such as volunteering in your community or joining a university society. The problems arise when improving career prospects moves from being a significant added advantage of such activities into being their primary function. If you only joined your five a side team so that you could mention it on your CV, that would presumably devalue the experience for your teammates.

In a similar vein, it is an undeniable fact that many universities, and UCD in particular, have become too career focussed. UCD frequently flaunts its ratings as one of the top 100 universities in terms of employability. While this rating is a good thing, the extent to which UCD use this in their marketing over everything else shows where Deeks’ and the university’s priorities lie. UCD advertises itself much more as a means to acquiring a good job than as a means of improving yourself as a human or of fulfilling yourself intellectually. 

This reckless disregard for the importance of creating academically valuable spaces can be seen in the things which Deeks is cutting. Getting rid of the Common Room Club in Newman last year showed that the university does not care about creating spaces for intellectual dialogue to prosper, at least not when profit is on the line.

The same prioritisation can be seen in spending €7.5 million to refurbish an office instead of buying new library books or funding new scholarships for low-income students. I do not know how one can spend €7.5 million refurbishing an office unless it involves gold plating all the chairs and building an attic in which he can hide a portrait of himself, which for some reason grows older by the day. 

Deeks’ and UCD’s focus on maximising profit and employability at the expense of everything else is clear. This is obviously a large problem which cannot be easily solved.

Related to all of this, however, is the existence of business schools. Most university degrees exist in order to fulfil a function which society has deemed important and which requires specific levels of education. Business degrees fit neither of these criteria. They are degrees specifically designed to teach people how to make money.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to make money. Despite this, such an aim does not belong in universities. The study of business which has a place in universities is economics. This is because it is about how businesses work and how they relate to and impact the rest of society. Many economists go on to work in similar roles as business graduates but the degree is not specifically aimed at teaching you how to make money, it is about how money and the economy works.

One of my lecturers once said that financial economists have the same relationship with finance as agricultural economists have with agriculture. That is, they study patterns in financial markets, analyse how best to do it. The study of financial economics is not, however, supposed to be a practical guide to working in finance.

Similarly, many students pursue degrees such as law or computer science with specific careers in mind. The difference between these courses and a business degree is that they are significantly less practical. They teach you about the theory of their subjects, how the law and computer science work, not how to be a lawyer or a computer scientist. An example of how this is true is that several modules available in the school of business can exempt you from taking certain ACAs (Chartered Accountancy exams). However, as far as I am aware, no law modules can exempt you from the FE1s (Law Society exams). This is because business degrees exist to teach you how to be a businessperson. Law degrees exist to teach you about the law. 

All of this matters because business degrees are the primary degree that shift the idea that knowledge is valuable in and of itself and that universities exist primarily to serve society, to the idea that university degrees exist as a means to improve one’s career prospects. No other degree does this to the same extent.

I have no problem with them existing in trade schools or through apprenticeships but their presence in universities distracts from the original purpose of these institutions. It is not inherently bad to do things with a focus on career. It does seem bad to prioritise that over everything else. Especially if it is at the expense of everything else universities should be doing.