Business schools are rarely speechless but are often voiceless. In fact, when we dissect the  phenomenon that has been state capture; of corruption and its hand maid collusion, we realise that  our role as business educators has to be more than merely improving the skills of managers. We  need to create leaders who will craft businesses who will create profits not just for their  shareholders but benefit the communities in which they operate, impacting them positively, but  most of all, business schools need to have a voice.

Having a voice doesn’t mean taking a political stand, but it does mean taking a position in society.

Likewise having a South African Business School Association does not mean subsuming academic  freedom, but rather ensuring the work we do is geared towards a common good. Having competitive  and fragmented business schools fighting among each other to provide qualifications doesn’t go to  the heart of the purpose of education, definitely not in developing countries, but even more so in  developed countries which have been blighted by corporate scandal and malfeasance.

The question we need to be asking in South Africa is how can we work together, not to compete, but  to engage, to work to promote fantastic quality and fast-tracked effective education not just at a  post-graduate level but at multiple levels. We need to ask how we can be serious partners in the  post-state capture era.

The South African Business Schools Association began as an attempt to bring business schools and  academics together to advance the interests of business schools with government, but there has  been an evolution to a position where its members are less concerned about their own personal  lobbying and more focussed on getting all institutions – from the poorer regional universities to the  bigger public metropolitan universities and the private business schools to work together to develop  educational solutions designed to fast-track transformation of the economy.

In game theory, this would be effectively collaborating to make the pie bigger – and then competing  to divide it up. In the past, we have never been collaborative enough as business schools. It’s been  inherent and tacit, but now we have to consciously architect it and drive it through. We have to work  towards providing not just skills and talents, but creating the knowledge that will foster the  motivation not just to help today, but to build tomorrow.

Working as a collective of business schools, we don’t just speak to government but to organised  business. To, for example, Business Unity South Africa and through that when we can access other  business-specific lobby groups and begin to understand the needs on the shop floor and in the  boardroom and come up with educational solutions. 

We have to be relevant and we have to understand that as educators our mandate is human  development, otherwise , there is little to no purpose to what we do. All of that though is easier said  than done. There are tenured academics researching areas that might fascinate them but have little  application in practice – all in the name of academic freedom; there are less well-resourced  institutions desperate for enrolments, big metropolitan universities having to be servants of  government and private universities subordinate to the needs of their major corporate sponsors. 

All of these tensions have to be understood, managed and harnessed because great education has a  dual edge of not just serving current and often competing interests but also looking to the future,  sparking a dynamism and incubating a vitality in the emerging economies.

The inherent risk is a particularly Schumpeterian one, the creative destruction of the old by the  emergence of the new. The best corporates understand that by being cleverer and more innovative  they can continue to create value rather than being rendered rent-seeking monoliths teetering on  the edge of obsolescence.

Business schools face the same challenge. They cannot solely serve yesterday’s institutions but must  start thinking about what the needs of the new economies will be; speaking to the provocateurs and  positioning themselves in the post-mining, post-agricultural era and the new highly creative world of  entrepreneurship and fin-tech among others, where economies will be highly diversified.

The good news is that this zeitgeist is reflected in the association, there is a real awareness and a  commitment to increased collegiality, not in a Pollyanna-ish fashion but rather rooted in cold pragmatism that the future of what we do rests in the creation of mass skilling .

We need to collaborate and then compete because first we have to build and that means serving  the national interest. South Africa cannot survive in a corrupt economy where unskilled people get  jobs and the money is stolen. It can’t survive in a privileged economy where access is denied to  those who could diversify it and it cannot survive in a cronyist economy where the exclusion is  sharply focussed on those without friends in high places.

It can survive and flourish though in a human economy where the focus is not fixated on race but  addressing the Gini co-efficient premised on the understanding that our greatest resource is the  overwhelming intelligence and ability of our population despite the historically constructed pigeon  holes.

This is not a campaign to create capitalists and perfect a consumerist society at all, but rather a movement to give people the capability to empower themselves, to innovate and create thriving  economies in which the benefit is not measured in the profit returned to shareholders but in the  bottom-line impact to communities in terms of jobs, investment, ethical practice and accountability.

I have a dream that we can educate tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands even millions of  South Africans, so that their lives improve. The Chinese do it – with a population of 1.6-billion –  because they understand the scale and the need to support the national interest. We can do it too.

* Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa and vice chair of  the South African Business Schools Association.