Putting the theory into practice

Durham has a newly restructured business school and would like to improve its reputation

When you're a small fish in a large and growing pond, it makes sense to put on a bit of weight. The Durham Business School has never been a minnow and, after three decades swimming in the turbulent waters of the MBA, one of the oldest UK operators can evidently cope well enough, boasting an established reputation and a highly desirable parent university. But there has been no ignoring a rising level of competition from rival institutions desperate to generate cash from the business of business degrees.

This is why 18 months ago Durham embarked on an academic form of bulking-up. Economics and finance were merged with the business school into a new super-department with 150 teaching staff and more than 2,000 students. Formally titled the School of Economics, Finance and Business, the emphasis is on the last part and they want it to be known as the Durham Business School. It also hosts the Barclays-sponsored Centre for Entrepreneurship, which specialises in helping small and medium-sized enterprises.

The school hopes that what it calls a multi-disciplinary approach will give it a competitive edge. "We fill a gap in the market by providing students with a more varied approach to their education," says the director, Professor Tony Antoniou, who previously headed the economics department and arrived along with the merger. "Our philosophy is to produce individuals who are capable of managing relationships across the organisation: whether in economics, finance or human resource management. If you look at the top US business schools, North Western or MIT, this is what they do. They all have a multi-disciplinary approach to learning, and more complete graduates.

"We wanted to create a business school with international standing but which also reflects Durham's tradition. This is why we have embarked on a process of restructuring. We're not only strong in strategic research, but applied research and consultancy. We have a school where there's a link between the strategic and the applied."

Certainly, the university will be keen to see the business school improve its academic rating which, at the last official assessment registered a distinctly middling 3A for its research, and Professor Antoniou may well be the person to do that. Originally from Cyprus, he comes with a strong track record having helped move the research rating at Brunel University from a 3 to a 4 out of 5, developing a department strong in postgraduate studies and research.

He then joined the Durham economics department in 1998 and moved it from being "a small underperforming department" to one awarded full marks in the research ratings and 24/24 in the separate assessment for teaching and learning. His own expertise lies in the field of financial futures and the stock market, and Professor Antoniou feels his arrival has brought with it an even more quantitative approach.

Durham is already popular around the world, with four out of five students coming from abroad, while a third of the teaching staff have international experience. The school gets some 700 applications for the 70 full MBA places, a degree of enthusiasm which, it says, means it has been able to tighten its admission criteria, and raise its prices. Peter Calladine from the Association of MBAs says that Durham has been around so long that it has no problems with "street cred", trading as "a quality school at a well- established university".

All three of its courses, full-time, part-time and distance learning are accredited by AMBA. The department made it into the Financial Times's top 100 business schools last January, in joint 95th place along with Bath and Ashridge. But its ambition is on a different scale. "We're looking to be in the Top 50 and in the Top 10 in the UK," says Antoniou. "We'd like the same standing as the university itself, which is excellent."

It may have some way to go, however, as there are Durham graduates who feel that, rigorous as it is on the academic side, the course needs more direct involvement with the world of business. Jacqueline Phillipson, now working as a London business consultant, graduated last year and then went back to help the school strengthen its commercial links. Jacqueline feels her course had many strengths on the analytical side. Moreover, she got her current job thanks partly to the fact that one of her bosses is himself a Durham graduate, showing that there is some sort of network out there. But she believes that a substantial shift in focus is needed if Durham is to compete with the London Business School or the other big-hitters it has its eyes on. High-level theory, she suggests, needs to be matched with nuts and bolts knowledge of how to operate in commerce: "Now that I'm working, I'm surrounded by people with MBAs who have expectations of me that I can't necessarily meet," she says.

This may change. There has been a substantial investment in the new department, with some 25 new academic appointments in the past 18 months.

Certainly, the aggressive re-branding campaign that has accompanied the merger, with its "Made in Durham" catchline, is suggesting practicality rather than pie charts. According to Colette Knowles, the marketing manager at the business school, the learning business is now so competitive that MBA courses have taken on some of the characteristics normally associated with a fast-moving consumer durable, such as washing powder. And in comparison with other schools it seems good value for money, not to say cheap, and charges only €18,000 in comparison with the £18,500 asked by Bath, with which it competes. In the current climate, this could be a key factor.