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Zeger Degraeve does not hang around. It is little more than a year since the quietly spoken Belgian left Europe for Australia to become dean of Melbourne Business School (MBS), but in that time he has certainly proven his credentials as a decision-making guru.
He has revamped the MBA and executive MBA programmes, increased the faculty of the business school by 20 per cent and resolved the long-standing governance conflict that divided the University of Melbourne and MBS.
It is all part of Prof Degraeve’s plan to build a business school in Australia with a world-class reputation.
The first people he had to convince were the MBS board, where 55 per cent of the voting rights belong to Australian corporations. With the University of Melbourne holding the balance of the voting rights, the newly appointed dean had to bring the two sides together. “It didn’t make any sense to have competition across the street,” he says. “Our competition is global.”
The original plans to merge the school with the university fell apart in September 2009, following concerns voiced by members of the board of MBS that the school would be swallowed up by the larger university. Even today MBS has just 42 professors and teaching staff, compared with more than four times that number in the university’s department of economics and commerce.
But with new bosses at both MBS and the university’s commerce department, the alliance received the green light.
For Prof Degraeve the pact is a personal triumph. He has been appointed joint dean of the department of commerce as well as dean of the business school. The latter will now house all the postgraduate business degrees, such as the masters in finance and masters in management programmes.
This will mean MBS, which is famous for its corporate courses, will be able to rebalance its revenues so that half will come from degree teaching, up from between 30 and 40 per cent.
Retaining the majority of the voting rights for MBS in the hands of business, rather than academia, also has its advantages. “This guarantees our independence for taking initiatives,” says Prof Degraeve.
The details of the merger, such as curriculum, governance and branding, are still being formulated by 11 working groups, each comprising five or six faculty and staff from the university and business school. One issue is how MBS can work more closely with university science, engineering and medicine departments. Dual degrees may follow. “Everything is up for review,” says the dean.
August 2012 saw the first intake of 68 students on the revamped MBA programme, now just 12 months in length. Though Prof Degraeve previously spent 12 years teaching at London Business School, which runs what is arguably Europe’s most respected two-year MBA programme, he is adamant the curriculum can be covered in 12 months.
“We maximise the time spent on the programme. We have an intensive programme, where students work throughout the day. The key to making it work was to have a valid pedagogical experience.”
This means varying the teaching methods throughout the day – lectures, groupwork and interpersonal skills coaching. Students can take an optional internship as well as an exchange programme with an overseas business school and a consultancy project in Shanghai.
Prof Degraeve’s conviction has persuaded the marketplace, with domestic applications to the programme up 300 per cent. The percentage of women on the programme has risen to 40 per cent.
What does the next 12 months hold for Prof Degraeve? “I would like to do what I wanted to do in the first place,” he says, which is to build a globally recognised business school in Australia. In the past there has been little sense of urgency, he adds, but now there is a realisation that there is more at stake than just the business school community. “It is about Australia’s place in the world.”