It is a long way from the bottom of the academic ladder to the deanship of a business school, but it is even further from the bottom of a coal pit. However, working down a pit and being dean of a business school are just two of the entries on the curriculum vitae of Michael West, now dean of Aston Business School in the UK.
Not that Prof West became a south Wales miner by the traditional route. In fact, he must have been the only miner at Oakdale Colliery in Gwent at that time to have a PhD in psychology.
It was an interest in organisational psychology that took him from Wales to work in universities as far afield as the Netherlands, Australia and Bermuda. He joined Aston in 2001 from the London School of Economics, where he worked in the centre for economic performance.
As someone brought up in south Wales, Prof West, who became dean at Aston in April this year, places a high value on the location of the school – in the heart of Britain’s second largest city, Birmingham. It is one of the cards he intends to play in promoting the institution to students and companies as he builds up the school’s portfolio of programmes.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, one of the top items on the list is to develop executive education courses, arguably the most effective way for a state-run university to bring in the cash. At the moment the school has an annual turnover of £450,000 in non-degree short courses, but Prof West aims to double that in the next year. Within six years he hopes to double it again.
To achieve this, Prof West – who would look just as much at home as chairman of a corporate board as he does as dean of a business school – says the emphasis will be on customised corporate education: “We will have solid partnerships with 20 organisations in the region and nationally.”
He is nothing if not pragmatic. While many deans at similar business schools profess that they want to be one of the world’s top institutions, he has set his sights on developing from a strong regional player to a strong national player and then a European business school. “It’s unrealistic to expect every business school to be recognised internationally,” he says.
Building on the school’s regional character will be central to growth. “We want to be seen as a school which is strong in diversity,” he says. With Birmingham in the running to become the UK’s first predominantly non-white city, diversity is a clever card to play. It has also helped the school build relationships with local companies and the local Chamber of Commerce.
Research is one of the other hot topics for Prof West – as the former head of research at Aston it is a subject close to his heart. The school is working on developing four areas of research, briefly summarised as performance measurement, diversity, leadership and strategy. Today the school attracts some £1.2m of research funding, but by focusing on these areas Prof West believes that this figure will increase to £3.6m in four years.
With the UK’s government-run research assessment exercise looming on the horizon, Prof West is happy he has managed to attract top research faculty to the school. These include marketing professor Kwaku Atuahene-Gima from Ceibs in Shanghai and Sam Aryee, an organisational behaviour specialist, from Hong Kong Baptist University. But he has to defend the school against faculty poaching. “If people were not interested in our staff there’d be something very wrong,” he points out.
Unlike many business school academics, Prof West is a fan of the UK’s research assessment exercise (RAE) – the process by which universities achieve their star ratings. “It’s had a very positive effect on research in the UK,” he says. “We’re the second most productive research country after the US and that is due to the RAE. It’s raised the level of quality.”
While executive education and research are potential areas of growth for Aston, the big money-spinner for the school is undergraduate programmes. For the year 2006/7, nearly half of the income came from undergraduate fees. A further 25 per cent came from postgraduate degrees, notably MSc and MBA programmes. Some 70 per cent of postgraduate students come from outside the UK.
For Aston, like many European business schools, the MSc market is one of the hottest. “We’re constantly looking at new MSc programmes,” says the dean. “By far the biggest growth in MSc students is coming from overseas.” Next year the school is hoping to attract 560 MSc students to the city.
One of the significant growth areas will be in joint subjects. In developing these programmes, Prof West intends to forge closer inks within the university.
He also believes his own research in psychology – he has written several books on effective teamwork – will be invaluable in running a business school. He began his tenure by conducting a staff attitude survey that concluded that the business had a very positive and warm community.
“We’re a great school with great research and a great spirit.”