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When business schools appoint deans, the decisions are usually predictable and often dull. Only rarely is the announcement unexpected, let alone surprising. But surprising is the word for the appointment of George Feiger, a former Californian wealth manager, as dean of Aston, a small school in the UK’s industrial heartland, and one fiercely proud of its connections with the Birmingham business community.
Prof Feiger is disarmingly persuasive about why he quit as chief executive of a $3.4bn wealth management company. “I wanted to come back to Britain and I wanted to get back into a more intellectual environment,” he says (he once worked in London). “I like being among intelligent people. You are constantly being challenged.”
Aston’s connection to the business community is its appeal. “The university’s whole ethos is total practicality, ” he says.
The school does two things well, he adds. “It creates employable graduates,” and “it does well in research into entrepreneurship. There is also a very strong commitment to quality.”
The former is particularly important at masters in management level, says Kathryn Ainsworth, MSc director. “The MSc side of things is really growing, unlike the MBA,” she says. “Undergraduates need something to give them a more focused skillset; employers are getting more specific about what they want.” That is as much practical experience as students can get, she adds.
The emphasis on rigorous and applied research is endorsed by Ben Clegg, associate dean for business partnerships. “To me this is what business schools are about – not sitting in ivory towers.”
While Aston’s focus is on helping smaller businesses, this does not rule the school out of the global picture, says Prof Feiger. “Small and medium-sized businesses are the backbone of every economy in the world that is real,” he says. “I believe we can get better at helping SMEs and that is a global skill.”
The school is one of four taking part in 10,000 Small Businesses, a UK initiative designed to accelerate the growth of high-potential small businesses and funded through the Goldman Sachs Foundation. According to an update report in May, participants reported an annual increase of 23 per cent in employees and a rise of 16 per cent in annual turnover since completing the programme.
“We’re not trying to be Wharton and staff Wall Street – they are doing a great job of that,” says Prof Feiger. “There is a whole part of the world that depends on SMEs. I don’t think of it as being parochial.”
The school is focusing on management as well as business skills. “It is much more difficult to teach people to manage people than to teach them analytics. A postgraduate degree should set you up with the framework for later life, not the knowledge.”
Prof Feiger is clearly excited about his role. “Aston is better than its reputation, but that means it can catch up,” he says. “It’s not London, but that does not mean it’s not good.”