England's finest aims to be 'the most intellectually serious business school in Europe'. By Roger Trapp
It is fair to say that Oxford and its age-old Fenland rival Cambridge have dithered over introducing Masters of Business Administration courses. While it sometimes seemed in the Eighties as if just about every university was seeking a share of the burgeoning management education market by setting up a business school, Oxbridge held out - until the early Nineties, when the fizz went out of the market.

Though Oxford has long had a management studies centre at what is now Templeton College, Cambridge was into the MBA market earlier, and from next October will be offering a 12-month version of its MBA alongside the existing 21-month sandwich course. Now, Oxford is seeking to make up the lost time with a vengeance. It launched the inaugural 12-month course in style earlier this month with a party catered by Raymond Blanc, the city's star chef, and partly sponsored by McKinsey & Co, the management consultancy that will almost certainly be casting its beady eye over the class in the months ahead. But, perhaps more importantly, it has secured a hefty endowment from Middle Eastern businessman Wafic Said and attracted John Kay - a noted economics academic with good business consultancy credentials and forthright views on management education - as director of the management school.

But even before Professor Kay's appointment, the university was displaying a certain degree of nous. No doubt aware that its name carries especial kudos in various far-flung parts of the globe, it has deliberately set out its stall as offering an international MBA. And the better than expected 49-strong first tranche of students now settling down to their studies is about as international as one could expect, with Chinese and Russians sitting alongside North and South Americans and people from the Middle East and central Europe.

Anthony Hopwood, deputy director of the school, is also at pains to point out that those selected are not rejects from other establishments better known for their business schools, if not overall. Their average GMAT score is right up there with those at the best schools and they have also consciously chosen to be guinea pigs, he says - even daring to note that the most famous alumni of London Business School were in the first year, arguably because they were natural risk takers.

"I'm getting phone calls from industry around Europe. They've heard we've attracted a talented group. There's a buzz," he added.

Prof Hopwood also stresses that the school is not just preying on the Oxford name. Unlike many other business schools in this country and elsewhere, it will be closely linked with the main university - in a similar way to the established names in the United States. Courses such as economics and law will be taught by staff from the university's formidable faculties in those areas. Moreover, all of the students are attached to one or other of the university's general colleges, with many living in college accommodation.

Certainly, the "Oxford phenomenon" - as Prof Hopwood terms it - has worked for students like Ali Diab, a Syrian who spent some of his school years in Britain. "I always wanted to come to Oxford; I like the British education system," he says. Formerly a banker with UBS, he is hoping the prestige of the establishment will give him a boost when he returns to banking in the Middle East.

As the first student accepted, Guy Turner probably holds a special place in the minds of the administrators - and he repays it with his confidence that he has made the right decision in cancelling the place he had at a well-known school to take part in what some term an experiment. "They are doing something that you can't do anywhere else in Europe or America. Oxford is not a business school. It's a university," he says.

This link with the rest of the university is also stressed by Colin Meyer, acting director of the management school until Prof Kay's arrival from the consultancy London Economics in January. Though the MBA is attracting the most attention, he points to the success of the economics and management undergraduate course launched two years ago. Currently oversubscribed, it will soon have the limit on the number of places lifted. Even so, it is catering for the equivalent of about 110 full-time undergraduates (if those doing joint degrees are included).

The post-graduate side is also developing well. There are MScs in the faintly old-fashioned-sounding industrial relations and in human resource management, while a doctorate programme aimed at dealing with the shortage of top-quality management studies academics is about to be introduced.

It should all lend support to Prof Kay's clear objective "to make this the most intellectually serious business school in Europe". But though his emphasis on teaching principles and analysis rather than merely delivering what the market wants at any given time would appear to place Oxford alongside the likes of Chicago and Stanford, he is also keen to differentiate Oxford from them.

The one-year rather than two-year course is one difference. But the keenness to attract people who have done something other than a US-style general undergraduate degree before is another. Above all, he is striving for excellence.

"One of the big advantages of being in Oxford is that we can go for top- of-the-market positioning," he said