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When Rebecca Taylor, dean of the Open University Business School, recalls her first few months in the job, feelings clearly run deep. Nine weeks into her tenure, she had to face a gruelling make-or-break visit from the external accreditation body Equis, the Brussels-based organisation that issues the quality stamp to top business schools.
Such a baptism of fire has its uses however, says the 45-year-old dean. “There is no better way to learn about a school than to be put in such a situation.”
It is an experience that should stand the Canadian-educated professor in good stead as she charts a course to take OUBS, one of the world’s most experienced business schools in distance learning, to a more global audience – only 40 per cent of MBA students are currently outside the UK. Being in charge of such an organisation will be a challenge in itself for the engaging Prof Taylor, who joined the OUBS from the more traditional Nottingham Business School in the UK in January 2012.
Unlike most distance learning or online MBA programmes, the OUBS combines scale – more than 5,000 students are enrolled on the MBA programme and more than 30,000 in the business school overall at any time – with rigorous teaching, says Prof Taylor. Research from the OU is rated in the top third of UK university research, she adds.
This distinction stems from the history of the parent Open University, established in 1969 to give open access to students who had missed out on formal education. It is still part of the ethos of the university.
“I’ve never seen such passion to a university mission,” says Prof Taylor of her colleagues.
It will be an enthusiasm she will hope to draw on as she goes about building, or rebuilding, the OUBS. For although the business school opened its doors in 1988 and quickly became one of the biggest MBA providers in the world, advances in online technology over the past decade have meant that it has lost its market lead to more opportunistic competitors.
“I think it’s important to know your space,” says the dean. “Until recently there weren’t many competing in that space. Now we need to define ourselves and be more visible.”
The task Prof Taylor has set herself is to differentiate the OUBS from others in the field. An economist by training, she is rapidly learning how to market the school. For example, teaching materials are second to none, she says. Each module – and a graduate student needs to complete seven modules to get an MBA – costs £1.6m and takes two years to develop.
The OU has a 400-strong learning and technology unit that takes academic materials from across the university and embeds the technology, allowing it to operate on a scale other institutions find difficult. “Another group looks at future technologies,” adds Prof Taylor. “What’s after the iPad? What’s after the technology that we are using to teach our students?”
There is also the pedagogy and the culture, she says. Distance learning is often rejected as a lonely experience. “Ours is a very personal experience,” she counters, with 800 associate teachers around the world.
This approach is a hallmark of the business programmes, with practitioners tutoring and coaching participants, who study alongside their day jobs. “I think the school is a world leader in practice-based learning. We’re just not as visible as we should be,” adds Prof Taylor.
Although only in the job for six months, the dean already has plans. “What I really want to do is review the [international] partnership portfolio and say what do we want this to look like in five years’ time.”
Research too is under scrutiny. “The issue is, what do we want the research portfolio to look like? And when we bring in new faculty, who do we want?”
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The dean also wants to develop stronger links with corporations and introduce a suite of programmes. “I’d like a wider postgraduate portfolio; I think internationally there is more demand for these.” These could be specialised masters degrees in finance, marketing and human resource management. “Also, it means we can create relationships with professional bodies.”
Applicants have not been deterred by the £16,500 price tag of the OUBS MBA. The MBA sector is 8 per cent down overall, says Prof Taylor, but applications to the OUBS are up between 1.6 and 2 per cent.
And as to Equis, the OUBS received accreditation for three years.