Sarah Dixon, Dean, International Business School Suzhou, China.
'Magical opportunity' Sarah Dixon, dean, International Business School Suzhou, China. © Financial Times

It is not often that an established dean gets the chance to set up a new business school. Sarah Dixon, the former dean of Bradford University School of Management, is clearly excited that she is one of them.

She has exchanged the industrial city in the north of England for Suzhou, a fast-growing metropolis close to Shanghai in China, to become the dean of IBSS – International Business School Suzhou – a joint initiative between Xi’an Jiaotong and the UK’s Liverpool University.

“I think it is really a magical opportunity,” she says. “We’re surrounded by business, there’s so many exciting things happening. It’s a perfect place to study business, in my view.”

A linguist by training, and initially an oil executive by profession, Prof Dixon’s weekly schedule is very different from that of many deans. Three times a week she has Chinese lessons, in spite of the fact that all degree programmes at IBSS are taught in English. At the moment this means largely the undergraduate degree – there are 2,000 students on this four-year programme. Sixty per cent of students study the third and fourth year of the degree in the UK.

However, the school has already launched a PhD programme and graduated students from its Masters in Finance degree, and it will launch a two-year part-time MBA in February. The MBA will be a Liverpool University degree recognised by the Chinese government, unlike the undergraduate programme, which awards degrees from both Liverpool and Xi’an Jiaotong.

Language will be a hallmark of the programmes at the school, and a really distinguishing factor from degrees launched in China by other European and US business schools. The dean, who joined the school at the beginning of 2013, plans to launch additional language study for students, so that as well as English and Chinese, they can master Spanish, for example.

The only exception to the use of the English language for teaching will be in executive programmes, especially customised ones that are tailored to senior executives. This is a prerequisite for breaking into the market for training managers in China’s state-owned enterprises, says Prof Dixon. “I think state-owned enterprises are a huge market for us and we’re not going to get into state-owned enterprises without Chinese,” she confirms.

There are further differences between IBSS’s proposition and the traditional model of western universities linking up with peers in China, including the two business schools that are neighbours to IBSS in Suzhou – Skema, from France, and Duke University from the US. In particular, says, Prof Dixon, the IBSS model is dependent on resident professors. “I think we have a unique proposition with resident faculty.”

As a result, finding teaching staff is at the top of her to-do list. At the moment the business school has 66 professors and lecturers and the dean will recruit a further 25 this year. The plan is to have 100 resident faculty by 2015. The 11 jobs currently advertised on the school’s website are for a range of positions – lecturers, associate and full professors and for professors of management practice, those schooled in the corporate world as well as academia.

Today some 50 per cent of the resident professors are ethnic Chinese and 50 per cent international. “I feel strongly the need to have some senior Chinese academics,” says Prof Dixon. “You need someone to understand how China works.” So she is using both Chinese and international headhunters to search for appropriate candidates.

As Prof Dixon explains, there may be a shortage of faculty, but there is no shortage of funds.

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