June 23, 2013 10:35 pm

Profile: Tradition meets experiment in Oxford

Bold: Said's ziggurat

Bold: Saïd's ziggurat

Standing proud amid Oxford’s historic skyline is a strikingly modern green copper ziggurat. Much as its bold architecture had to settle into the city’s landscape, so Saïd Business School has had to establish itself as a worthy component of the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

Founded in 1996 – the striking main building followed in 2001 – the school has, like any emerging organisation, faced the challenge of establishing itself among its older peers.

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Since his arrival as dean two years ago, Peter Tufano has sought to take advantage of being part of Oxford university. This means more than merely leveraging the brand, however – he wants to fully embed the Saïd school within the university.

Prof Tufano, like a growing number of business school leaders, recognises the need for curricula to go beyond traditional core disciplines such as finance and marketing and to engage with the reality in which companies operate.

“There’s a certain hubris to think that the only people with anything worth saying to business students are business people,” he says.

Part of the former Harvard professor’s strategy to distinguish Saïd from its competitors has been the “1+1” programme, whereby students can complete an MBA and a specialised masters degree at Oxford in two years.

The experiment has shown great promise since its launch last year, says Prof Tufano. The university’s departments of computer science, criminology, education, geography and social policy are all signed up for the joint project, as is the university’s Oxford Internet Institute, with more to come.

The school’s latest big venture, launched in January, focuses on uniting students, alumni and university departments to address issues of global importance. Global Opportunities and Threats: Oxford – or Goto – is an online platform that features a range of materials produced by Oxford academics for the use of students and alumni who work in business.

Content includes video, infographics and articles, to engage the 10,000 or so alumni who have so far been given access. “We are staking our reputation on what goes up [on Goto],” says Prof Tufano. “So this is Oxford quality.”

Goto will focus on a topic of current importance each year, starting with changing demographics. Big data and natural resources will follow in 2014 and 2015 respectively. “This is not only a major financial investment, but a mission-defining project for the school,” he says.

The dean stresses that he is by no means creating a new-age business school. “We’re going to do the traditional things well as a prerequisite for doing things that make us distinctive.”

The completion of a new extension, formally opened in February, gives the school more space and cutting-edge facilities in which to deliver lucrative executive education courses. More than half the £28m cost of the new building was met by Wafic Saïd, the Syrian-Saudi businessman, who has donated £70m to the business school to date.

The school’s one-year MBA – currently 24th in the FT’s rankings and a permanent fixture among the global top 30 over the past decade – has enjoyed robust enrolment during the financial crisis, unlike many of its UK peers.

The Saïd Executive MBA, a 21-month part-time programme for senior managers, is ranked 38th globally by the FT. Since the launch of the FT’s global Masters in Finance ranking in 2011, Saïd’s full-time masters in financial economics has consistently been near the top. This year it was rated sixth.

According to Dimitrios Tsomocos, the course director, the nine-month programme “combines Oxford analytical rigour with practical application and market knowledge”. The degree is among the most expensive finance masters, with fees totalling more than £34,000.

A growing number of competing degrees makes it essential to keep course content up to date, says Mr Tsomocos. For example: “We have to prepare our students to deal with regulatory changes that have emerged from the [financial] crisis.”

The intake is restricted to around 80, the course director says, to be able to dedicate sufficient resources to both study support and career management. He highlights the intensification of placement efforts over the past few years, which include enhanced job interview preparation and company visits to the Saïd school. Of the most recent graduating class, 89 per cent had found employment within three months of graduation.

Alumni from the class of 2010 – those surveyed for this year’s FT ranking – report an average salary today of $87,580, among the highest of ranked programmes. In line with the dean’s work to strengthen ties with former students, Mr Tsomocos says that events for the degree’s alumni have been prioritised. “The best barometer of our programme is our alumni.”

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