Ambition and pragmatism are the subtle themes of any conversation with Andrew Burke about his life and his work. Since October 2015, he has been the pioneering, yet down-to-earth and occasionally quirky, Dean of a school driven by 21st-Century ambition. Given the go-ahead for a new premises by 2018 with a €70 million price tag, the new Trinity Business School aims to rejuvenate a business education system that was “no longer fit for purpose”, according to the Chairman of the school’s advisory board, Seán Melly, speaking in a Financial Times article from 2014.
An entrepreneurial spirit played a central role in Burke’s life since childhood, when he observed his family’s business running through the oil shocks of the 1970’s. In college he would head to Sandyford Industrial Estate on his motorcycle four nights a week to work the late shift at his brother’s computer-packaging company. Undergraduate education wasn’t immediately on his radar but he decided, on the final day of application for the CAO, to pursue it, and went to UCD to study economics.
But his practical experience of entrepreneurship gave way to a more academic focus after he decided to pursue postgraduate study, first in Economic History at the London School of Economics and later Doctoral Study in Oxford, graduating in 1994. Burke’s focus at Oxford, a thesis on entrepreneurship in the music industry, shows his interest in fields in which there is a gap in our collective understanding. Even then, according to Burke, these weren’t fields of prime focus. “Both of those were novel at the time because there was virtually no research on entrepreneurship, particularly from economics, and the music industry wasn’t considered quite a serious, proper industry”, he told The University Times.
Since then he held senior positions at many schools. He spent two years at the entrepreneurship centre at St. Andrew’s University, then joined the University of Edinburgh in 1997, where he would launch their first ever entrepreneurship courses, and joined Warwick University by 2001, where he was involved in setting up a distance learning programme in entrepreneurship. The pinnacle was his position as the chair and director of the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship at the esteemed Cranfield School of Management near Milton Keynes.
“He is a very good motivator, at least in my experience. He has a positive attitude, and if you have done something well then he will tell you”
Burke focused more on involvement in student life during his undergraduate studies, becoming the Ents officer of UCD Students’ Union, and then President, in 1987. Though avowedly non-academic until reaching postgraduate level, Burke saw strong appeal in the academic world. “Once you got to postgrad the whole question changed. It became much more about the innovative and creative side [of study]”, he told The University Times. “I found that quite interesting.” Now, he is widely published in academic literature. His online Trinity staff profile credits nine peer-reviewed articles under his name, most written with other esteemed academics in the Business education world. One of those fellow academics is Professor André Van Stel, a Senior Research Fellow at the Trinity Business School. Commending his “broad view and experience of entrepreneurship” as adding to their many collaborative works, Van Stel tells The University Times that “He is a very good motivator, at least in my experience. He has a positive attitude, and if you have done something well then he will tell you”.
Burke is clear on his ambitions for the Business School. He tells The University Times that in seven years’ time he hopes for the school to be internationally respected and esteemed. He wants to help push the School towards achieving the main accreditations required for any business school worth its salt – from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and Equis – which would allow for it to segue ideally into the top fifty in the Financial Times business school rankings.
“I like being an academic entrepreneur”, Burke says, and sees his role as particularly important in the university context. Notable about Burke’s approach to the academics of entrepreneurship is the balancing act he makes between hard research and practical work. For him, a quality business education should combine both aspects.
At the time he was approached by Cranfield, he says, “entrepreneurship centres were split into two groups. There were centres like Warwick where the centre for entrepreneurship was very high-profile in terms of research but didn’t really engage with business, and then you had other schools with entrepreneurship centres that did a lot on engaging with businesses but did very little research”. In this light, Prof. Van Stel suggests Burke’s good fit for the role, saying that “he has a good vision of what’s going on in the world both at the practical level through working with actual entrepreneurs, and also in the world of publishing research”
Setting up the Bettany Centre at Cranfield allowed Burke to put these qualities together – merging these sides was, for him, “the obvious thing” to do, and over seven years would develop a full strategy of active entrepreneurship research programmes and degree courses.
Though Burke’s transformatory talents shine through in the examples of his time in Edinburgh, Warwick and Cranfield, it is clear that establishing an internationally competitive and executive business school in Trinity is going to be a considerable challenge. This challenge, though, lies more in the anatomy of the relationship between universities and the government than within the university itself.
One regret of Burke’s is the fact that his ambitions for the School are stymied by the approach the Irish government takes towards universities in the country. The cap on salaries paid to school deans and leaders, according to Burke, is a barrier to being truly competitive in hiring top talent. When he was hired from Cranfield last year, there was controversy over his salary surpassing the pay scale for Trinity staff, causing some faculty agitation.
“First and foremost we’re about running impactful degrees – making impact on students careers and where they work.” He sees huge potential in creating an “export industry” in management education for Ireland.
Burke’s defensive position on this, however, is indicative of his beliefs on making Irish business education more internationally competitive, bearing in mind the hiring of international staff. “What concerns me is that if business schools here or anywhere in Ireland are going to be constrained by a salary cap imposed by the government, we’re just not going to be able to achieve our goal of becoming internationally competitive”. Leading academics from around the world, he claims, won’t be incentivised to teach at Trinity.
Bridging this gap between government constraints and international aspiration is going to be another challenge for Burke in his mission for competitiveness and modernisation. “If you want to have a world class business school you have to be able to compete at the top level. Part of that means being able to compete on the labour market for the top talent. If the university isn’t in a position to get the HEA to budge on a salary cap, then they’re not going to have any chance doing it when they get a leading professor of finance, for example”.
The difference between business schools in the UK and Ireland is the level of governmental involvement, often to Irish detriment. “The universities in the UK, although technically state-owned, run as not-for-profit organisations. That’s not the case in Ireland – the government seem to have real control and micromanagement of the universities here”. Irish universities are too bureaucratic, “held back” in their ability to innovate.
Burke speaks of his aspirations for the school: “First and foremost we’re about running impactful degrees – making impact on students careers and where they work.” He sees huge potential in creating an “export industry” in management education for Ireland. Rankings, too, feature in Burke’s vision. Research factors into rankings performance in particular, he says, citing the example of the UK equivalent of the HEA conducting audits on university research output every 5 years, and how that contributes to transparency in universities. “I want to be here [in Trinity] to see that through” he commented.
“The research orientation of universities has increased to such an extent over the last 15 years that there’s too many academics who regard students as an inconvenience rather than the primary customer. That’s not right”
It’s not just Burke’s drive and commitment to goals that will see this project through. It is also his care and passion for the work he does, as well as for students’ development. “When I arrived here, obviously I had my own ideas, but I wanted to get a sense for where people’s hearts were and what motivated them. I had a coffee with literally everybody.. an hour sitting down with everybody, every faculty member and every professional staff member in the school.” He goes on: “ the research orientation of universities has increased to such an extent over the last 15 years that there’s too many academics who regard students as an inconvenience rather than the primary customer. That’s not right. We’re here to be delivering an education first and foremost, and I’m heartened that most people in the business school here have that view”.
The rapid growth of the school also needs to be taken into account. According to André van Stel, “The business schools [that he worked in before] didn’t grow quite as fast as Trinity Business School, so as far as I can tell I think that this is new to him – not necessarily managing the people and the centre in itself, but rather managing a centre that is growing”.
Where Burke goes, he aims not to leave without having fulfilled his goals. This is what he has done in Edinburgh, at Warwick, and at Cranfield – with a heart full of drive and determination, and an ambitious ethic of pragmatic innovation, it is likely that in seven years time, Burke will have driven the Trinity Business School well beyond its current capacities.
Trinity’s ambitions for the future, encapsulated in the 2014-2019 Strategic Plan, often seem intangible and, in ways, removed from the everyday student experience. In Burke, Trinity has no doubt gained a School leader that strives to get things done, and make ambitious milestones appear achievable. The Trinity Business School, through Burke’s vision, may prove to be one of the more visible and renowned results of the College’s final push into the 21st century.