Oxford v Cambridge: The race between Saïd Business School and the Judge Business School

Peter Brown meets the Dean who pushed Oxford's business school ahead of Cambridge

Watched by Al Gore, Robert Redwood, eBay's Jeff Skoll and 600 others in the Nelson Mandela lecture theatre, Professor Anthony Hopwood, retiring dean of the Saïd Business School, looks confident and happy as he introduces the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. He has the air of a man who has wheeled and dealt in high circles.

Ever since the 1260s, when John Balliol and Walter de Merton stumped up the cash for the colleges named after them, Oxford has been adroit at finding rich sponsors with an eye to posterity. Few have been as good at it as Hopwood. This year, 21 per cent of the school's income will come from donations, endowments and trusts. "Which I think is one of the highest in Europe," says Hopwood immodestly.

He took over seven and a half years ago from the economist John Kay, whose brief reign ended in a flurry of indignation at the university's disinclination to pay a market rate to management lecturers. On that subject, Hopwood's "softly, softly" policy of making friends rather than enemies in high places has paid off, to the point where the school has considerable autonomy. "We still can't pay the same salaries as top US institutions or even London Business School. We'd like a little more freedom, but we've come a long way," he says.

And as he points out, there are many other attractions to working - and learning - in Oxford. The figures prove it. Bucking all the trends, the Oxford MBA intake was up to 225 this year from 170, and applications are 40 per cent up, with a high (690) GMAT average.

Three of Said's students were in this year's winning Boat Race crew. In the Financial Times's world MBA rankings, too, Oxford is ahead, at number 20, while its older opponent at Cambridge, the Judge School of Management, lies 35th.

But can Oxford keep it up? MBA rankings are drawn up largely on the basis of post-course salary increases, and the younger the intake the more impressive those will be. Oxford's average age is 29, compared with 26 - and falling - in most of America. The next leg of the race could be tougher than the first.

Pondering this from within the school's glass-fronted facade is Professor Colin Mayer, who will take over as dean in September.

His aim, he says, is to see the Saïd as a top 10 world player within five years. The first step, he says, will be to reform the management stucture at the college to reflect its improved status.

Those who know him describe him as approachable, efficient, a good behind-the-scenes operator and very, very bright. An Oxford graduate himself, he can move seamlessly between the corridors of study and power. In the Nineties, he helped to set up the influential economics consultancy Oxera, which he says helps to keep him informed on the big business issues.

Although he has been at the business school since its inception, he was chosen as dean by the university only after a global executive search. An expert on corporate governance, he has been setting up Saïd's latest venture, the Oxford University Centre for Business Taxation, complete with a generous £5m donation from The Hundred Group.

Married with two daughters, he lists his interests as piano, jogging, reading philosophy and science. The philosophy, he says, feeds into his argument that, in financial centres, trust is more important than regulation. And as for science, he says bullishly that at Oxford "there's been just as much innovation activity, and perhaps rather more, than at Cambridge". The Saïd is becoming known for its entrepreneurship teaching.

Mayer has been at the heart of the Oxford economics scene for many years, and it is the strength of the school's relations with the wider university, some might say, that have helped to push Oxford ahead of Cambridge. "We've got faculty in 27 out of the 29 colleges in Oxford," Hopwood says. The implication is that Cambridge is behind both in salaries and in integration.

Oxford can also point to a seemingly never-ending list of initiatives. Hopwood, whose background is in accountancy, reels them off: "We've looked forward into a world of business that's rapidly changing. We're strong in relation to new emerging sectors of the economy, particularly those that are knowledge-intensive. As well as the Skoll Centre we have an international summit in media and communications. We host the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilisation. We've got the Clifford Chance Centre for the Management of Professional Services and they've just increased funding by 48 per cent.

"We have 'Silicon Valley comes to Oxford' - we bring over techies and venture capitalists young and old, and they do master classes and plenaries with our MBA students. And L'Oreal have endowed a chair in marketing."

Why did L'Oreal choose Oxford over, for example, Cambridge? Geoff Skingsley, global HR director, explains: "The school was full of new ideas. It more or less sees the world as its potential recruiting ground. And that matches our strategy perfectly."

Hopwood is proud of his pupils. "A lot of colleges initially thought management was going to attract second-rate students. When they saw them, people wanted to have our students. They are highly articulate with backgrounds in history and philosophy as well as business."

One battle Hopwood appears to have lost, however, is the drive to establish management as a discipline in its own right. The school's undergraduates (an intake of 80 to 90 a year) still mostly study for joint honours in economics and management. But in an "assets swap" with Templeton College, the Saïd school has taken over executive education - "it is very personalised, not a sausage factory" - and announced a new diploma in financial strategy. And a small Executive (part-time) MBA programme, which takes about 35 students a year, has been launched.

Hopwood's ability as a fund-raiser is doubly important for a new school which cannot yet rely on large alumni donations (though an Annual Giving Officer has just been appointed). He can be justly proud of it, especially since it was achieved against a fight with cancer. He is now in remission and looking forward to a two-year sabbatical. "I have some very exciting plans". Oxford must hope that Colin Mayer's will match them.

'There are fantastic visting speakers at Oxford. It's exhilarating.'

If Vinay Melon, 29, ever had doubts about taking an MBA at the Said Business School they disappeared this spring when he found himself representing the university on a week-long tour of India by Oxford's Chancellor Lord Patten of Barnes (Chris Patten). It culminated in lunch with Dr. Manmohan Singh, the India Prime Minister.

"Meeting my own Prime Minister like that - it was something that only Oxford could have offered," says Melon, who looked at Cambridge and two US schools before plumping for the Said.

"I was a journalist in India, wanting to get into management and Oxford was planning a media and management centre. Also, my wife was able to find work here; she could not have worked in America.

"There are fantastic visiting speakers in Oxford, and being part of the university - I'm at Jesus College - gives it an added magic. It's very pressured, but working in teams of five different nationalities on assignments with 48-hour deadlines is exhilarating."

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