Business as usual? Not quite

Oxford has tried to create an MBA that stands out from the crowd. Lucy Hodges reports
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The Independent Online

Less than 10 years ago, the idea of building a business school in Oxford was the stuff of intense debate. The dons disliked the notion of a business school, period. But they disliked the idea even more of a business school funded by Wafic Saïd, the billionaire Syrian arms broker.

Less than 10 years ago, the idea of building a business school in Oxford was the stuff of intense debate. The dons disliked the notion of a business school, period. But they disliked the idea even more of a business school funded by Wafic Saïd, the billionaire Syrian arms broker.

The row became fiercer when the university was forced to abandon an attempt to build the school on land it had acquired from Merton College. Further argument followed when it was found that the new site next to the station contained not a scruffy old shed, as had been thought originally, but a priceless piece of industrial archaeology.

It is extraordinary to think back on those days now that the Saïd Business School has become an established part of the Oxford skyline and one of the top schools in the country. The building, on the site of the former Midland Railway station, is still less than four years old but is has begun to have a mellow feel, enabling one to appreciate the timeless quality of the architecture. It is a beautiful building, serene and modern, yet harking back to an ancient Middle Eastern past (with its amphitheatre and tower or ziggurat) and Oxford traditions (with its cloistered quadrangle).

The dean Anthony Hopwood has been creating the business school of his dreams. He has spent £200,000 adorning the walls with a modern art collection and is proud to show off a magnificent new tapestry in the boardroom, paid for, naturally, by Saïd and Lord Sainsbury, who also bankrolled the library.

Saïd came top in a survey of all business schools for fundraising and top for value for money (the cost of the MBA in relation to the salary after study). It helps, of course, that it is able to trade on the Oxford name but there is no doubt that being a new school starting from scratch gives it enormous fizz. "I spend more time with my fundraiser than almost any other member of my administrative staff," boasts Hopwood.

Most of the money raised goes on burnishing the academic offering. The school won £1.8m from the cosmetics company L'Oréal for a professor of marketing and then had the job of finding the best person for the position.

Hopwood had a research assistant work on hunting down an academic who had carved out a reputation. It took two years and in the end he came up with Douglas Holt, a sociologist and associate professor at Harvard Business School. "Harvard is angry about losing him which is great," says Hopwood, happily. "He is a great researcher and a great teacher."

Hopwood is trying to reposition the MBA curriculum, which means, he says, that he is trying to hire exciting staff who are working in an applied way.

Most business schools emulate one another, he says, which means they offer the same subjects. "Some of the great business schools are very boring but business is not boring and modern marketing is not boring," he explains. "Most business schools are bound by their own boredom."

Saïd wants to be really strong in marketing. It also wants to excel at strategy and at international business. New appointments have been made in both areas, including a lecturer in Chinese business studies.

The result of Hopwood's effort to recruit the most exciting faculty from around the world is that the staff is very American. It also results in a faculty that is international and interdisciplinary. The Saïd academics are happy to work together, according to Hopwood. "They really do interact," he says. "That doesn't happen in most business schools."

A new subject has been introduced: science and technology studies. Around the academic core, Hopwood is trying to put in place a number of research and teaching centres. Two have been set up and another three or four are envisaged. The first is the Clifford Chance Centre for the Management of Professional Service Firms. Britain is an international leader in this area and Saïd hopes to develop as a knowledge hub.

Second, there is the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, Saïd's way of making corporate social responsibility interesting. Jeff Skoll is the co-founder of eBay, who did his MBA at Stanford but decided to give his money to Oxford. "I met him and six months later I had £7.5m," says Hopwood. "I think he thought we were entrepreneurial and he was impressed by our internationalism." The centre organises the Skoll world forum on social entrepreneurship which attracts 600 people to Oxford, including the actor Ben Kingsley, who expressed an interest in marketing fair trade tea in the same way as Paul Newman sold pasta sauces.

Hopwood has another 18 months before he goes on a sabbatical and then retires. There is a lot of work to be done in that interval, he says. One is in the area of media and communications. He is planning a media summit on 23 May, which will feature big names such as Peter Bazalgette, the broadcaster; Michael Heseltine of Haymarket Press; Luke Johnson, chairman of Channel 4; and Melvyn Bragg.

Last month he held a private equity forum for investment bankers, lawyers and local business people at which a network was established. In addition, Saïd has set up the Oxford forum on entrepreneurship called Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford, which is held each November. "We want to become a place where people meet and all manner of important and unusual people come together," says Hopwood.

Given the entrepreneurial manner in which the Saïd Business School goes about its work, it is not surprising that so many of its MBA graduates have set up their own businesses. The figure stands at 10 per cent. Hopwood reckons that percentage is more impressive than MIT's because the latter's graduates show their entrepreneurial mettle in their forties, whereas Saïd's graduates are establishing companies at a younger age.

All of which must warm the cockles of Gordon Brown's heart. Last year the Treasury decided to waive work permit requirements for young MBA graduates on the world's top 50 programmes. The Treasury compiled its own league table of these top 50 programmes as judged by the income their graduates earned and the percentage in employment. Harvard was number one.

But the school that came top in the UK was Saïd, which came in at number nine in the world ahead of MIT's Sloan School and the London Business School.

"Right from the beginning we have made entrepreneurship a core part of the MBA programme," says Hopwood.

Saïd has proved the doubters wrong, showing that business and management can be taught well at Oxford and enhance the university's reputation around the world. It is even confident enough to have placed a bust of Wafic Saïd by its grand entrance lobby out of gratitude to its benefactor.