The use of professional guest lectures in Business Economics modules
Business Economics modules in Social Sciences programmes
Business Economics taught in Social Sciences programmes tends to be a difficult product to position. The majority of students—but also, rather surprisingly, colleagues—often focus only on the "Business", and tend to forget the "Economics". Those students attracted by the "Business" side happen to be disappointed or even sometimes disgruntled that the module is in general based on economics principles, including quantitative techniques necessary to understand utility/profit maximization, cost/benefit analysis, and basic game theoretic approaches to competition. Course convenors and textbook authors are aware of this and, either subconsciously or strategically (in fear of obtaining penalising feedback from students), tend to leave aside more advanced and challenging economics in favour of unenthusiastic analysis of case studies.
The result is that often Business Economics modules are diluted microeconomics units supported by various business case studies, taught by applied microeconomists who may not have any real world business experience and who fear to antagonise students by asking them to deal with more technical economic questions. Case studies can be very useful in principle and, correctly utilised, can significantly support learning. However a case study taught by an economist who has not had any first-hand business experience cannot be fully credible, inspiring and engaging to students. They would be good examples for students' revision, nothing more. This situation is neither good for students (who may grow less engaged with the module) nor for course convenors (uneasy, uncomfortable, too worried to displease students).
Guest lectures in Business Economics modules in Social Sciences at the University of Manchester
I have been teaching Business Economics modules (year 2 and year 3) at Manchester since 2009. Indeed the audience is heterogeneous and mostly skewed in favour of those students registered to Finance/Accounting/Business programmes who are considering more ECON modules in their CV. There are, however, also straight Economics students, who would like to be exposed to more managerial and applied topics.
When I inherited the modules, one possible (and easy) solution in front of me was to pick a textbook and cover together with the class the basic economic principles in it, including case studies.
Another possibility was to tailor the syllabus to my research expertise (I am an industrial economist with research interests in location, product differentiation, media and health care markets), for example compiling a textbook and selecting papers to read. In addition I would reinforce the topics covered with case studies taught by guest lecturers. The class would rigorously cover with me, an industrial economist, the economics of business and the study of specific industries. Contributions and case studies from economists that worked in those business sectors would then cement the concepts and, ideally, engage and inspire students. Indeed, this has been the main purpose of using guest lecturers.
The purpose of exposing students to guest lectures is to satisfy, in my opinion, important needs. Students need to be
- informed of the existence of jobs for economists available in the business world,
- familiarised with some of the sectors where economists can be employed and, finally and most importantly,
- put in contact with those professionals and their networks.
This way a Business Economics module may acquire credibility in the eyes of students, who will realise the added value of such a course. The majority of them will appreciate the fact that they may be asked to deal with more challenging material, under the condition that the convenor is able to demonstrate expertise in the economics of business and knowledge of real industrial sectors. Instead of superficial analysis, they are given rigorous economics teaching (in year 3 we do not use any textbook, but read economics papers published in peer reviewed academic journals - including some of my own papers). They are exposed to the study of industrial sectors, the way an economist would and, at the same time, they can see first-hand that some of the concepts, techniques and models are indeed used by economists in real life. It is not the lecturer nor the textbook telling them; it is the professionals themselves. Needless to say, a successful guest lecture could be a significant resource towards students' employability.
How to find guest lecturers
In year two Business Economics modules I had two senior managers of KPMG giving a lecture on transfer prices two years in a row. Then, once I introduced the study of the media market in the syllabus, we had a senior economist from Ofcom (the telecommunication regulator) giving a lecture on net neutrality and two-sided markets.
In the third year module, where we covered cost-benefit analysis and health economics principles, we had a senior economist from AstraZeneca, the second largest pharmaceutical company in UK.
To my surprise, I discovered that many professional economists are genuinely very happy to come in and give lectures. I also found that contacting the company's media/public relations department is usually ineffective. Requests get lost in the system. After investigating the companies' websites, I identified candidates and wrote directly to them. They did reply promptly and, in most cases, with positive answers. The bottom line is: go for it!
How to structure the lecture
I tend to schedule the guest lectures in the second half of the course. By then students have had the time to understand and digest my approach and the objectives of the module. Their willingness to assimilate additional economics principles or theoretical models may be close to saturation. That is the moment when a guest lecture could come to the rescue and make students appreciate the work done. I ask the guests to keep the lecture no longer than 1 hour and allow for up to 30 minutes questions. I usually ask the guests to (i) describe their background and experience, (ii) describe their companies and their job and (iii) provide at least one specific case study.
If possible, I also ask the guest to inform students of the requirements that need to be satisfied in order to be considered for a junior position as economist in their company. In all cases guests have been very helpful and informative to students. All of them provided the class with their email addresses.
Year 2 students enjoyed the guest lectures, in particular the KPMG lectures. Not surprisingly, consultancy was a more appealing path for many of them compared to regulatory (Ofcom). A few students kept in contact with the presenter and I am aware of at least one student who eventually was hired by KPMG.
Year 3 students were most enthusiastic. After covering a health economics topic in academic year 2013/14, I invited a senior economist from AstraZeneca. He gave a friendly, still detailed and captivating, description of his career, background and job. He was friendly and clearly available to take students' questions. The bottom line of his presentation was that a good masters in health economics would have been a useful (in many cases essential) requirement for a career as a health economist. After the guest lecture, various students (about 20) started inquiring about an MSc in Health and 8 of them ended up taking the MSc Economics of Health at Manchester. The following year I was not able to organize a guest lecture. No student applied for (nor enquired about) postgraduate programmes in Health Economics, even if health economics was indeed again a topic in the module.
It would be very difficult, time consuming, and counterproductive to have guest lectures for each topic covered in the syllabus. Some students may not be particularly interested in a specific topic and, consequently, in the related guest lecture. A guest lecture should be a unique event in the course.
Some students tend to ask if attendance to the guest lecture is compulsory or the presentation itself may be part of the examinable syllabus. I think that it is important to explain from the beginning that the guest lecture is an integral part of the syllabus, and therefore examinable. This shows that the course convenor has indeed planned the lecture as a pivotal part of the course and ensures (or, at least, increases) attendance and commitment from students.
Guest lectures can be an effective and engaging tool in Business Economics modules taught in Social Sciences programmes. If carefully planned and integrated in the syllabus, they familiarise students with industries and employers' requirements. Indeed they can contribute to students' employability. Finally they also provide credibility to the course, showing how concepts and models studied in class are not sterile exercises but tools used by professionals in real industries.
 Two students explicitly mentioned the lecture in the online questionnaires. "I very much enjoyed the guest lecturer on health economics. He was very engaging and the topic was very interesting". "A very practical course, especially the health economics part, didn't know there's so much economics that goes into medicine".