Oxford dons the MBA gown

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The Independent Online
The university embraced the Masters in Business Administration late in the day but soon shot up the league ladder. Nevetheless, Philip Schofield finds the school a bit sniffy about management jargon

MORE than 100 business schools offered Masters degrees in Business Administration (MBAs) before Oxford University joined their ranks in 1996. Why did the oldest university in the English- speaking world wait so long?

Academic conservatism may be one reason. Even today there is a vocational opposition within the university, which argues that business is too "soft" a subject for rigorous academic study. This is in spite of the fact that undergraduate management courses have been on offer since 1965, and that Templeton College has become a respected centre for executive education.

Nevertheless this residual scepticism appears to colour the way in which the MBA programme is presented. This year's prospectus says, a little defensively, that "the degree is grounded on knowledge rather than management jargon". Professor John Kay, director of the school, also appears to be reassuring critics in an interview in the alumnus magazine Oxford Today. He argues that the study of management is at the same stage as the pre- scientific study of medicine, but that "out of that quackery came a reasonably scientific study of medicine". He says that the scientific study of medicine took off once key advances were made in biochemistry, and that scientific business studies will emerge in exactly the same way.

"The jewel in the crown of business studies is the theory of finance, which is now a clearly established intellectual discipline. The application of economics to business is on the intermediate ground. There's still a lot of charlatanism, but you can start to see how this subject can be properly defined. In the softer areas - organisational behaviour - there hasn't been the same advance. That's one of the questions for the Oxford Business School - can we get sociology, psychology, perhaps even some of the evolutionary sociobiology that's been developing, to feed into the study of organisations?"

The decision to set up a world-class business school offering undergraduate and postgraduate courses, including MBAs, was taken some time ago. However, to establish one in suitable premises and with a world-class faculty would cost pounds 40m. The recent gift of pounds 20m from Syrian businessman Wafic Said gave the university the green light. In recognition of his gift, courses are now offered by the Said Business School which, jointly with Templeton College, forms the faculty of management.

Oxford clearly intends to draw the best MBA students. The entry requirements are among the highest in Europe. Candidates are normally expected to have achieved a minimum score of 620 in the formidable Graduate Management Admissions Test, although the average is 652, second in Europe only to Insead, in France.

The director of the MBA programme, Professor Anthony Hopwood, says that there has been "slow but positive development" in management studies at Oxford from the late 1960s. He concedes that both Oxford and Cambridge were relatively late. This was because it is harder to set up a business school in a top European university.

"In the US leading business schools are in leading universities. In Europe the leading business schools have not been in universities at all. So the London Business School is a stand-alone institution, so are Insead (in Fontainebleau), IMD (Lausanne) and Esade in Barcelona. The top universities all round Europe, not just in Britain, have found it more difficult, or slower, to deal with modern knowledge developments related to management.

"What Oxford represents is an attempt to have a major international business school in Europe established in a major university. That is new for Europe and very significant.

"One difference to our MBA stems immediately from that. The Oxford MBA is integrated with the rest of the university in two senses. One intellectually - economics taught by economists, law by lawyers and there are contributions from politics, international affairs, science and tech- nology. So it's recognisably a degree of the University of Oxford."

The other sense in which the MBA is integrated is that a student is both a member of the university and of a college. "So students can be sitting at dinner or in the bar alongside historians, physicists and chemists. This is certainly an experience you're not going to get at the London Business School, or at Insead."

Another distinguishing feature, he says, is that it is an "intelligent" MBA. "It's not academic in the sense that that word is used in the UK, but it is knowledge- based, rigorous, and relevant. It has attracted very able students." He says the MBA is now in its second year and cites the very high GMAT scores. He adds: "We have 60 students this year. Eight are Rhodes scholars, two are Marshall scholars, one is a Fulbright scholar, one a McKinsey scholar."

The MBA is also highly international, with only five Britons out of 49 in the first year and 15 out of 60 this year. However, Professor Hopwood says few of the faculty are yet from overseas. "That's a challenge that remains."

In spite of its short life, the school has achieved two major victories in international business school competitions. One team won "best product presentation" in the MootCorp Business Plan competition in Austin, Texas. Their plan for a new international "Froot Juice" retail chain impressed the judges and some venture capitalists; the first stores will open in Australia early next year. Another team won the European business schools case competition held at Cranfield. This is an impressive beginning for Oxford's MBA.