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Jon Reast’s strategy as dean of Bradford University School of Management could be described as what goes around comes around.

Prof Reast, who has been in the job since June 2013, has sought to set his business school apart, in what by his own admission is a crowded market, through a focus on sustainability and care for the earth’s resources in a movement known as the circular economy.

This approach to economics can be seen in very modern digital business models, according to Prof Reast. Car hiring service Zipcar uses the efficiency of a large web-based marketplace to enable people to share cars, saving them money and the wider society the cost of roads choked with vehicles, Prof Reast notes.

Such “new economy” business models could also be seen as copies of those created more than a century ago, when cities like Bradford were at the heart of the industrial revolution, he adds.

“There are parts of the circular economy that are a return to the past.”

“We used to all have deliveries of milk in bottles that got returned, washed and reused. We are now seeing glass manufacturers encouraging this kind of behaviour to recycle glass bottles because it uses less energy than making glass from sand.”

Prof Reast made such views a central part of Bradford’s ethos last year when he oversaw the creation of the world’s first circular economy distance learning MBA. The programme’s content was developed in partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the charity set up by the retired British sailor who in 2005 broke the world record for a solo circumnavigation of the globe, and a group of multinational businesses, including B & Q, BT, Cisco, Renault and National Grid.

Students take 12 core modules, split equally between established business and management theories and a set of specialist modules relating to highly contemporary concepts and ideas surrounding the circular economy, with titles including “materials, resources, energy and competitiveness”, “diversity, scale and development” and “enterprise and innovation”.

“The programme provides students with an innovative perspective on business and management looking beyond the linear take, make, dispose model,” Prof Reast says.

“In adopting this alternative approach the school aims to provide the next generation of leaders a first-mover advantage in an increasingly dynamic and volatile business environment.”

Prof Reast may also be concerned about the sustainability of the MBA programme at Bradford. For several years, Bradford ran a successful joint MBA programme with TiasNimbas business school in the Netherlands, which generated an intake of well over 100 students a year.

Since that relationship ended in the academic year 2010-11, however, numbers on Bradford’s accelerated MBA programme, which takes 10 months to complete rather than the standard 12 months, have dropped to an intake of nine in 2014, down from 25 the year before.

“There are about 1,500 business schools worldwide and we are a minor player within that large number,” Prof Reast admits.

In this context, economics over environmental issues could well prove a key differentiator.

“It is about responsibility in a broader sense,” Prof Reast says. “I don’t think we are a lone voice but we are certainly committed to this area.”

He is bullish about Bradford’s future, pointing to the diversity of the albeit greatly reduced MBA intake at the business school, noting that there were 16 nationalities among the 25 joining the course in 2013.

“Many good quality business schools, including ourselves, have seen reducing full time MBA numbers in recent years,” he says, blaming the decline in numbers at Bradford on tightening of British visa rules for students and the economic downturn, which is making people reluctant to give up the security of a full-time job to study.

“The high of a few years ago was created by HM Treasury’s scheme for high-skilled migrants,” Prof Reast adds. “As Bradford were on the list, MBA students were guaranteed a visa to work in the UK post completion of their studies.”

The loss of students from overseas is a challenge for business schools across the country, Prof Reast adds, noting that international applicants are turning to Australia, Canada and the US rather than coming to study at British institutions.

“The UK is perceived by some as an unfriendly place to study,” he says. “This is similar in other good quality business schools that we are aware of.”

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