Hospitality Management Education: is it fit for purpose in a changing and uncertain world?
3rd April 2020
Don Sloan questions if the current international crisis should prompt a fundamental review of hospitality management education offered by UK universities. Is it fit for purpose in a rapidly changing and uncertain world?
Hospitality sector – stepping up in a crisis
The fall-out from the current public health crisis will be devastating for many in the UK hospitality industry. The scale of business closures and job losses will go way beyond that caused by any previous economic downturn. Whilst government support is welcome – through the job retention scheme, grants and business interruption loans – the likely impact remains unprecedented. Behind frightening statistics and announcements of high-profile restaurant chains going into administration, there is also the human cost: hospitality workers facing periods of unemployment, rising personal debt, anxiety and challenges to mental health.
There have been some positive consequences. Through effective advocacy, not least from Kate Nicholls, CEO of UK Hospitality, there is now widespread recognition that Britain’s hospitality industry contributes more than £120bn a year to the economy and is worth more than the automotive, pharmaceuticals and aeronautics industries combined. In addition, whilst forced to stop trading, many hospitality businesses have turned their attention to supporting those in need, including front-line NHS workers who need access to nutritious meals to sustain their heroic efforts, and the vulnerable, living in isolation, who require food deliveries. In this respect, they stand for a more compassionate, less individualistic approach to business, which we can hope will live on post-crisis.
It is also encouraging that there is much discussion online about the longer term implications for the hospitality sector and for individual businesses. A significant proportion of the hospitality community is engaging with key challenges, from employee retention and wellbeing, to strategies for business continuity.
Higher education – is it ready for a new reality?
This changing context begs a question for higher education. As industry engages in a fundamental re-evaluation of future priorities, are universities ready to do the same?
In recent years, hospitality schools in UK universities have been experiencing a collective identity crisis, and for some, an existential crisis. Rather than becoming consumed by challenges, which is debilitating, creative thinking is now required to ensure a bright and meaningful future. There may be an opportunity to emerge from this period of uncertainty with a vision for hospitality education that is more resilient, fit for purpose and responsive to the new realities of life.
For universities that offer hospitality management education, but are not committed to it as a flagship area, now is the time to close provision and focus on other areas. There is little point in engaging in a half-hearted manner. For those who choose to maintain their delivery, and for new entrants to the market, it’s time to step up and strive for excellence and impact.
Here are some points that might stimulate discussion and reflection amongst hospitality management educators:
Student experience. Hospitality schools’ primary responsibility is to provide an outstanding learning experience that enables students to recognise and fulfil their potential. Will the reality of the student experience live up to marketing rhetoric? Will students be prepared to find success and fulfilment in a more uncertain world?
- The learning experience, in addition to being intellectually challenging and appropriately focused, should cultivate resilience, creativity, empathy and cultural awareness – skills that will help graduates navigate careers in a new and uncertain world. This is unlikely to be achieved through traditional, classroom-based teaching alone. It requires immersive, experiential learning, exposure to the realities of working life and active participation in culturally diverse educational and professional networks.
- A positive outcome from this difficult period is likely to be a renewed appreciation of community and culture – something that should lie at the heart of the student experience. We know that students’ motivation to learn, their passion for hospitality and their satisfaction with their time at university is strengthened if they feel they belong to a strong and supportive educational community. Reflecting the underpinning philosophy of hospitality, schools should embed organisational cultures that are convivial, inclusive, outward looking and connected.
- If hospitality management education is to be perceived as ‘relevant’ and fit for purpose, it should be created and delivered in partnership with colleagues from industry. There is nothing as powerful as full participation to get a professional community to buy-in to and take pride in educational programmes. It is also worth considering who should be key partners: ideally those who share a school’s values, ambitions and commitment to providing opportunity for others.
- It is in all our interests to enhance the appeal of hospitality careers so as to attract those with potential and enthusiasm into our sector. Universities can play their part in this collective endeavour by delivering genuinely engaging educational programmes, distinguished by rich and diverse learning experiences and opportunities for international exposure.
Defining narrative. There seems to be consensus that significant change is coming. Are hospitality schools ready to play their part in influencing change and shaping the new environment? This will require an honest appraisal of their capabilities and the articulation of a clear and distinctive purpose. Educational purpose will only carry meaning if it reflects the pervasive mood.
- For some, educational purpose could come from championing progressive practice. Recent events have revealed the most positive characteristics of the hospitality community, but they have also shone a light on some ugly aspects of business practice, in particular around employee protection. By leading conversations, providing an authoritative voice on important and complex issues, adapting curricula and bringing high quality research into the public domain, hospitality schools could become part of a new progressive alliance.
- Alternatively, hospitality schools’ distinctive purpose may focus on civic contribution. This could take the form of supporting their local business community by creating meaningful networks, possibly of those who have entrepreneurial ambitions; engaging students in projects that have a strong social or cultural impact; using hospitality to provide opportunities to those who are vulnerable or marginalised; or taking proactive steps to widen access to higher education for those who would not normally participate.
Academic research. University staff are under pressure to publish in respected academic journals. How can universities ensure that research is relevant, has a genuinely positive impact and does not detract from a focus on the student experience?
As the word of perceived experts will increasingly be welcomed and respected, can universities exert positive influence on business practice?
- There is a risk that engagement in academic research is driven primarily by externally imposed agendas (i.e. publishing in highly ranked journals affects the ‘status’ of university departments and the financial support they receive from senior management) and that publishing becomes a goal in itself. Such priorities are lost on those from other stakeholder groups (i.e. students and industry), they undermine the credibility of research and of academics and can foster suspicion.
- It is time to rethink the research agenda to ensure it shapes students’ and practitioners’ perceptions and understanding of key issues and that it has a positive and meaningful impact on industry and society. As part of a new progressive alliance of stakeholders, hospitality schools should be contributing evidence-based commentary, informed by academic research, on key challenges facing the hospitality world, including risk mitigation and management, not least in relation to pandemics; human trafficking; labour shortages; environmental impacts; and cultural regeneration.