Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Stephen Coakley has just started his 12-month sabbatical to take an MBA at the Said business school at Oxford University.

It is the middle of the night and Qantas flight QF31 is 38,000 feet above the Bay of Bengal en route to Heathrow. The Coakley family are on the second leg of a 24 hour journey to the UK and Oxford.

The passengers in our area of the aircraft are trying to get some sleep, however I find myself trying to control our very awake two year-old-son Michael. In desperation I turn to the safety card, and focus on the section illustrating what to do in the event of a water landing.

“Hey Michael, can you see the little boats coming off the side of the plane?” “No Daddy, not boats, rafts!” was his swift response.

At this point I seriously considered whether the “old man” should really be spending the family’s money to study in Oxford or whether it would be more prudent to be making provision for Michael to do so in 16 years time.

My name is Stephen Coakley. I am a married 36 year old father of one; a proud Australian with a partner in a professional services firm. I am an avid sportsman, admittedly some of it armchair, but with a liking for surfing, skiing and golf. We have a home in Sydney, close to family and friends and a short ferry trip to the office, parks and beaches.

So, why relocate my family, take a 12 month sabbatical from my firm and pay my own way through an Oxford MBA?

About a year ago, I began to see gaps in my business skills and began questioning what to do about it. At the same time, my wife gave me a quote from Australian author Bryce Courtney: “Nothing is more certain than that if you walk down the centre of the road you are going to be hit by traffic coming from both directions.”*

I was walking right in the centre of that road, every aspect of my life moving forward successfully albeit quite predictably. I couldn’t help but wonder what else might be out there.

Oxford University is an institution that many would argue has no equal and the Said business school is incredibly forward thinking - Jeff Skoll, president of eBay recognised this in giving the school $7.5m to set up a centre for social entrepreneurship here, the first in Europe.

On paper this combination of the university and the business school, rolled into a one-year MBA programme, presented me with an outstanding proposition. The programme includes in-company, practical sessions that would not only address my immediate business concerns but in all likelihood would do much more.

Further, Oxford presented my family with the potential for a truly international experience, one that would continue to benefit us long after we returned to Australia.

One week in and already I feel that my decision to come to the Said Business School has been one of the best I have ever made.

The diversity of the class of 2004-5 is exactly as I had hoped; an outstanding group of intelligent, multicultural peers with a truly amazing array of personal and professional backgrounds, achievements and experiences.

One of my fellow students, for example, is captain of the Ugandan national rugby team, another a miner, a third a surgeon looking for a business career.

Further, the initial lectures and case studies have already given me the access to material that addresses some of the issues facing my business in Australia.

An additional aspect of an Oxford MBA is that you become a member of one of the university’s constituent colleges as well as a member of the business school.

While the college provides some academic support, it also provides sporting and social activities. I am a member of Keble College along with a number of my MBA colleagues and to date we have participated in football, rowing and the college choir.

Oxford does not confer degrees for the sake of it and the workload on its one year MBA is definitely solid. Initially one of my concerns was whether I was clever enough to make the grade. Now, one week in, I find myself more troubled about making enough time to spend with my family.

This is a personal investment in more ways than just financial. My wife Deborah, who has put her own career on hold, and my son, who I can only hope picks up a little of the Queen’s English during our stay, are both making sacrifices to be with me in Oxford. It is imperative that I find an appropriate balance to ensure success on both the academic and personal fronts.

We have moved into a town house just north of Oxford, close to stores and easy transport into town. At the moment I am taking the bus to business school but I don’t think it will be long before I buy a bicycle and join this city of cyclists.

Michael is attending nursery school two mornings a week and Deborah is looking at taking some classes over the course of the year.

Many of the spouses, partners and children of MBA students have had the opportunity to meet and spend some time together at the business school and in many of Oxford’s fine parks and gardens. We are all still finding our way but the really positive thing has been the way that this group of families is helping each other out.

Oxford is a truly wonderful place - in fact one of the other challenges in achieving an appropriate balance is deciding what not to get involved in given the variety of activities in both the city and its university.

Since arriving, we have all tried to experience as much of Oxford as possible. Attending formal dinners in college halls, rowing on the Isis (as the Thames is known in Oxford), walking in the university parks, cycling around town and visiting many of Oxford’s pubs have all provided us with a great feel for this place.

This past weekend, all new students at the university matriculated.

That is to say we officially became Oxford students in one of Oxford’s ancient ceremonies, in Latin.

This allowed us to dress in sub fusc (formal suits, gowns and bowties) that is the Oxford academic dress and worn for matriculation, graduation and sitting examinations.

However, for me this was more than just a ceremony, it also served as a gentle reminder of the main reason I am here.

I suspect that may have been at least partly due to the fact that it was held in the examination schools. Whatever the reason, it’s definitely time to put my head down and work.

*A Recipe for Dreaming, Penguin, 1994

Get alerts on Business education when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article