Feature of the Week

November 14, 2011 12:01 am

Oxford seeks to widen MBA appeal

It was just 15 years ago that the voices of outraged dons reverberated through the corridors of the University of Oxford, in protest at the mere thought that the ancient institution would have a business school. Now, it seems, departments are lining up to take advantage of a scheme for their students to learn about business.

The university is in the final stage of approval of a “1+1” programme, which will enable students to study an Oxford specialist master's degree and an MBA in two years. It is all part of the strategy of Peter Tufano, Saïd Business School’s newly appointed dean, to enable the school to take on the big guns in the US, including Wharton and Harvard, Prof Tufano’s alma mater.

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The scheme is not only remarkable for the speed of implementation – the departments involved hope to enrol students in 2012 – but because it embodies two of the most fashionable themes in business education: an interdisciplinary approach to business and a flexible approach to study.

“The choice has been between one year or two [for an MBA]. Now you can do one or two, but a different two,” says Prof Tufano.

His logic is hard to fault. It is, he says about “depth plus breadth” – the deep dive of a master's degree in a specialist subject, such as environmental management or education, and the breadth of a business degree.

1+1 and 2+2

What’s in a name? Peter Tufano’s catchily titled 1+1 programme is reminiscent, in name at least, of Harvard Business School’s 2+2 scheme, a deferred entry programme in which HBS guarantees entry to the MBA for young graduates on completion of appropriate work experience. The model has been copied by other schools, including the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad.

He compares the options for potential students with those on a two-year MBA at a top US school. After the core courses, students can choose from more than 100 electives. “But if you want to specialise in the environment, there are only a handful of electives you can choose,” he adds. “For a specialised career you need more than just management skills.”

And significantly, because the fees for master’s degrees are lower than for an MBA, the total cost of studying on the 1+1 programme at Oxford will be between $114,500 and $134,000, depending on the degree. That is up to $50,000 less than the cost of a two-year MBA at Harvard or Wharton.

There are 230 taught postgraduate programmes at Oxford, says Prof Tufano, most of which are a year long and many could be potential partners in the scheme. Four departments are participating in the first phase: geography and the environment; education; computer science; and the Oxford Internet Institute.

Helen Margetts, director of the Oxford Internet Institute sees their master’s programme as a breeding ground for entrepreneurs and says 1+1 will provide additional business tools. “I think it will bring in students that don’t currently come because it offers them a whole new skillset.”

The geography department has four master’s degrees in environmental management and Gordon Clark, director of graduate studies, sees the fit between these degrees and the MBA as “a natural”. “I see it as complementary to what we do; it deepens the management study. We aim to be one of the foremost programmes in the world and we think this relationship will contribute to achieving this.”

After decades in which business schools have striven to become independent from their parent universities, the complexity of the business world now means many top schools are re-evaluating their relationships with other departments. Two leaders in this field are Stanford and the University of Michigan’s Ross school. At Stanford one in six MBA students is studying a double degree programme with another school in the university and dean Garth Saloner hopes eventually that number will be one in four. At Ross 15 per cent of full-time MBA students are on joint degrees.

Numbers will be necessarily small on the first enrolment in 2012 and Prof Tufano is unclear on the long-term uptake. “I don’t have a clue to be honest.” However, what is clear is that other university-based business schools with one-year MBAs will be scrutinising the scheme.

The traditional two-year MBA degree is under fire as many leading schools look to make the degree more flexible. At the Kellogg school at Northwestern University, 85 of the 629 students are on an accelerated one-year degree. And Wharton and the Haas school at the University of Berkeley have schemes to extend study, offering executive education programmes to students several years after graduating.

Student response to the 1+1 is positive. Saïd graduate Parker Goyer studied two master’s degrees at Oxford – a degree in education followed by the MBA. “This would have been very attractive.”

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