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It is nearly two years since the University of Manchester surprised the UK business school sector by appointing a sociologist to head up its business school, one of the largest in the UK, with 7,600 degree students.

A Londoner by birth and a Mancunian by professional inclination, Fiona Devine was previously in charge of the social sciences department at Manchester. Moving to the business school is something she has taken in her stride. “We’d always collaborated with the business school,” she says of her old department, adding that running one academic department is similar to another — to a degree.

“Business schools have an external profile which other schools don’t,” she admits. “What’s been striking to me is that it [the business school] has got the standard school and then two additional products.”

Those products are the ones most likely to influence the reputation of the school, particularly in global business — executive education short courses and the MBA and DBA (doctorate) degrees. “The really new one for me was learning about the world of the MBA and the DBA. The DBA is great. People come in with all that experience and . . . a critical view of the markets they operate in.”

Prof Devine has the demeanour and quiet authority one might expect of a corporate lawyer or senior executive and it is of little surprise that she has taken to this external world with alacrity.

This is no more evident than in her fundraising activities. This month the business school will reveal its new branding as the Alliance Manchester School of Business. The naming gift of £15m from Lord Alliance was in addition to several previous gifts he had made to the university — to the schools of law and medicine as well as business.

She has also taken decisive action on realigning the overseas activities of the business school, closing its Miami campus, where the school had run one leg of its Global MBA programme. Although the school has its own facilities for teaching the Global MBA in Dubai, Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong as well as Manchester, the programme in the US, as well as that in Brazil, will be taught with local partner institutions.

The dean has extended collaboration with Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Brazil and has recently joined forces with the Kelley school at Indiana University in the US to host Manchester Global MBA students. The first US students will enrol in July 2016. Kelley has built a worldwide reputation as a leader in quality online MBAs, and Prof Devine says this, along with Kelley’s facilities in Washington DC, is very much part of the attraction of the relationship.

The school has to plan for all contingencies, she says, and online learning solves many problems. “We have overseas students coming to us, but that might not always be the case.”

Prof Devine believes that once this network of partnerships is in place, there will be opportunities to build deeper relationships. “We can use this to set up a whole lot of new opportunities,” she says, beginning with collaborative research. The school already runs a joint DBA programme with Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China as well as a dual-degree Global MBA

This year will see the school celebrate its 50th anniversary in the city of Manchester, and the dean believes it is still important to stay close to its roots. “It’s important to have a presence in the business community in Manchester,” she says.

One of the latest initiatives is to run coaching sessions with local schools. But there are less altruistic reasons for staying so close to local business. Those studying on the full-time MBA must complete three business projects — in consultancy, international business and a third working with a not-for-profit organisation, which “gets them to look at the world differently”. All need corporate support.

From this year all undergraduate students will also have to go on a work placement. The reaction to the announcements led to applications soaring by 24 per cent.

In spite of the Alliance donation to the school, Prof Devine is acutely aware of the financial restraints on all UK universities because of expected funding cuts over the next few years. “It’s not going to be easy for the university sector. We’ll just all have to step up.

“The business school needs high fee-paying courses,” she says, which means high-quality facilities to boot. “We have to make sure that student experience remains high.” There are already plans for the whole of the Manchester Business School community to be brought together on a single campus by 2018, with £10m of the Alliance donation supporting the venture.

As for moneymaking courses, along with the undergraduate degrees it is the score of specialised masters degrees that make the real money for the school — data analytics is the hot topic this year.

On top of that, executive education contributes between £10m and £15m to the business school coffers. Big clients include the National Health Service, oil major BP and the military — Manchester runs an advanced management course for those leaving the armed forces. “They have an awful lot of experience, but they often don’t speak the same language as business,” points out Prof Devine.

The appointment of a new dean often results in an exodus of top professors, but not so at Manchester. The school has lost almost none to competing institutions in the past two years, says the dean, and 11 new ones have been appointed. The most recent arrival is Sir Cary Cooper, the workplace guru, who previously spent nearly 30 years teaching in Manchester. He returns from Lancaster University as the 50th anniversary professor of organisational psychology and health.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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