Oxbridge spurns tradition with its MBA courses: Our most venerable universities have entered the business market at last - with a down-to-earth approach

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IN BUSINESS education if nowhere else, Britain's oldest - and best-known - universities appear to be intent on throwing tradition to the wind.

First Cambridge, then Oxford, have claimed recently to offer something completely different in the MBA market, as the qualification has lost a lot of its fizz.

Both were overlooked when the Franks report on management education in the 1960s recommended Manchester and London as the centres for the British response to the US business schools. But that did not put them off. After 25 years of cogitation, they have entered the market with courses that - perhaps surprisingly, given the institutions' traditions - stress their practical content.

Oxford has just announced that its long-awaited MBA will open for business in 1996. A two-year programme that has been in gestation since 1988, it will start with 30 students but it is hoped it will rise to 150 by the end of the decade.

The move follows the introduction this year of an undergraduate degree in economics and management, which is said to be attracting 15 applicants per place compared with the university's average of three.

As a result, management education has moved into the centre of the university, both metaphorically and literally - the MBA announcement was accompanied by news that space at the old Radcliffe Infirmary site in the centre of Oxford was being set aside to teach undergraduate and post- graduate students.

Hitherto, Templeton College, on modern, campus-style premises built at Kennington on the city's outskirts, as a result of dissatisfaction among some dons and local business people with the Franks report, has been the management base. But its links with the main university have always been complex. For example, not all its fellows are fellows of the university.

Although it has more than 170 students engaged in management degrees or research, its main strength has been executive education, with about 1,300 managers attending courses there last year.

Like his counterparts at Cambridge, Colin Mayer, Oxford's Peter Moores Professor of Management Studies, feels that delaying entry to the field has enabled the university to take account of the needs of business in devising the course. And he says the strongest message he has received from employers is that management education should have a strong practical bent, on top of good teaching in the fundamentals of business.

Consequently, he and his colleagues - who include Clark Brundin, the American dean and former vice-chancellor of Warwick University, which has one of Britain's most successful business schools - have devised a programme that is different from the usual two- year courses offered in US schools and by British organisations that are influenced by them, such as London Business School.

Students will start with a 'core' year at Oxford, but this will be followed by a placement of five months or more working in a company in a country other than the one from which the participant comes. This spell will be followed by two terms at Oxford 'integrating' what has been learned in the first year and the placement.

Rather like Insead, the university will make learning at least one foreign language a condition of graduation. 'It will be extremely international in focus,' said Professor Mayer, pointing out that the university would be looking to take on teaching faculty from around the world.

Professor Mayer makes no apology for sticking to the two- year programme. He said an adequate practical training could not be provided in less than two years.

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