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Sarah Dixon was born to be an academic. Small in stature and with a razor-sharp mind, everything about her screams professor – or, to be more precise, calmly and pleasantly asserts her credentials.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, Prof Dixon was 56 before she made it to the dean’s job at Bradford University School of Management a year ago, although she had previously spent a short spell at the University of Bath and, prior to that, eight years at Kingston University, where she rose from senior lecturer to director of postgraduate programmes.

The reason? Prof Dixon started life as an “oilman”, working for 23 years in management at Shell. And it is her experience there that informs her philosophy at Bradford. Business engagement is her mantra. “All modules are to have business practitioners on them,” she explains. It is a message that has already filtered through to the faculty of the school.

But her calm and pleasant manner may not be enough to deal with the issues facing the school, which is being forced to rethink its strategy due to external pressures.

None of this is a surprise to the dean. Indeed, she is the first to point out the irony in her own doctoral thesis (she has a DBA from Henley Management College). It investigated what she calls “environmental turbulence” and was a study of four Russian oil companies.

“It was on organisational transformation, looking at how two oil companies had changed and two had not.” It addressed “the new capabilities needed to survive”.

Few terms better describe the state of the UK university and business school industry these days than “environmental turbulence”. With government cuts in university funding and higher undergraduate fees, along with restrictions on visas for non-EU applicants at both under- and postgraduate level, Prof Dixon will have her work cut out coming up with the new capabilities needed to flourish.

That essentially means money. She admits she had not even thought about fundraising when she started the job. Without it, the school will need to rely heavily on course fees. Although it made a promising foray into customised executive programmes five years ago, revenues there were hit – as were those of every other business school – by the recession. It now earns just £500,000 ($812,000) a year from these courses.

Prof Dixon is also well aware of the issues around undergraduate course fees.

“There could be a risk of a very real drop in applications,” she says.

With many of Bradford’s overseas students coming to the school from India, the changes in visa restrictions could be a challenge too.

Restrictions on visas, she says, mean “the UK is saying you’re not welcome. We’re going to be really horrid to you.”

These are just further body blows to Bradford, which, just a decade ago, was undoubtedly one of the top business schools in the UK – something that Prof Dixon is keen to promote. “The good thing about Bradford School of Management is that it has a reputation.”

But as business schools have sought to be more global, the location of the northern school – it takes three hours by train to get there from London – has become a disadvantage. Also, new schools at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, not to mention an increase in highly ranked business programmes from the London School of Economics and Political Science, have pushed Bradford down the pecking order.

Prof Dixon will not give up without a fight, particularly on globalisation: “For me, Bradford is international, then a UK school, and then in Yorkshire, in that order.” She is developing more global degree programmes, taught in countries such as Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong. Indeed, there are now more than 1,000 MBA students on Bradford’s books, most studying outside the UK.

Although the degree partnership between Bradford and TiasNimbas Business School in the Netherlands looks set to end, Bradford has other plans for Europe, recently signing an agreement with the University of Perugia’s faculty of engineering to run an MBA in the Umbrian capital.

Although Prof Dixon’s academic vision got her the dean’s chair, it is clear that it is her business brains that will ensure Bradford flourishes.

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