Students Mean Trouble for Business

By Ulli Diemer

As if there wasn’t trouble enough already. As if the corporate psyche didn’t have enough worries, what with taxes, inflation recession, angry consumers, angry workers, ecologists, and all the rest.

Now there’s bad news from the campuses as well. “Don’t be fooled by the quiet: students mean trouble for business” reads a recent headline in Executive Magazine, a glossy Canadian business publication owned by the Southam Corporation.

The article concerns an “exhaustive study of the corporate image among university students” performed recently by Unimarc Consulting Limited, a Toronto-based management consulting company. Unimarc came up with some interesting figures.

“Perhaps the most significant general finding,” says the article, “is the fact that 77 per cent of the sample expressed a basically negative opinion of the overall conduct and performance of the business community in Canada. In fact, 35 per cent of the students claimed to hold extremely negative views.”

It goes on to say that “a clear sign that students feelings toward business have not mellowed in recent years is found among the 62 per cent of the recent sample who stated that they become more negative towards business over the past two years. A mere 7 per cent – and these, were mostly hard-core business students – reported that their feelings had moved the other way in the same period.”

“But,” the article adds, finding a note of cheer where it can, “business does have more allies on the campuses than just business school students. While 14 per cent of those polled claimed a generally favourable attitude toward business, only about 6 per cent of the university student population are enrolled in B-school courses.”

But there isn’t a hell of a lot to cheer about. Asked their “attitude toward the free enterprise system as it now exists,” 44 per cent of the students say they “mostly disapprove” and an additional 38 per cent say they “strongly disapprove”. A mere 4 per cent say they “strongly approve”, while a further 6 per cent say they “mostly approve.”

86 per cent think that the profit motive has done society “more harm than good.”

The work ethic fares equally badly. Only 8 per cent say they “mostly reject” it and 44 per cent say they “strongly reject” it.

The article goes on to point out how attitudes to the work ethic are a threat primarily to the values fostered by business. As it says, “it is not work, per se, that students are rejecting. Solid effort is alive and well on the campuses and so is the spirit of competition. But what students are rejecting is the notion that hard work, any kind of work, always pays off and that a regular job, any job, is essential to a person’s social and spiritual well being.”

Individual business leaders don’t fare too well either. The students were asked to rank 20 well-known people in order of how they liked them.

The three businessmen on the list – E.P. Taylor, Stephen Roman, and Henry Ford II – finished in the last three spots. J. Richard Finlay, President of Unimarc Consulting Ltd., which performed the survey, warns that the implications of the study “threaten to disrupt almost every aspect of corporate life.” He warns that it is “dangerously wrong” to think that “students have mellowed a lot in the past few years toward business.” He calls for a major public relations effort to counteract current student attitudes. “Business must do a better job of selling itself,” he says.

He suggests “joint corporate-campus advisory groups. Such bodies would include membership of top executives and student leaders” and would “encourage communication”.

He also suggest “a centre for corporate-campus affairs” as “a good vehicle for encouraging youthful criticism – in a positive spirit – of business.”

Mr. Finlay does not make it clear whether “strong disapproval” of the free enterprise system, the profit motive, and the work ethic are to be considered criticism “in a positive spirit” or whether they are “destructive”. Nor does he consider the possibility that student attitudes might be held strongly enough that even “increased communication” could not reverse them, let alone the possibility that, perhaps, the “youthful criticism” might be correct.

Finlay does think that the survey is reliable. Although it was limited to Ontario campuses, he feels that the results can be extrapolated to the university student population in the rest of the country. Over 1000 students were surveyed, all in the spring term of 1974.

Published in The Varsity, 1974