Oxford’s Saïd Business School: Hardly A Stuffy Downton Abbey

A long-time Harvard Business School professor, Peter Tufano will celebrate his fourth year anniversary as dean of Oxford's business school in July

A long-time Harvard Business School professor, Peter Tufano will celebrate his fourth year anniversary as dean of Oxford’s business school in July

Before Peter Tufano accepted the job as dean of the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, he did what many would-be candidates might do before applying to the intensive, one-year MBA program. He did his research, drilling down with students, alumni, faculty, staff, and employers.

“Before I joined, I managed to interview or talk to over 250 people before accepting the job,” he says. “I used to be a consultant so it’s not unusual to collect a lot of information before you make a decision. And I discovered that my initial inclinations were right. This was an undiscovered jewel, and the potential the school had was amazing, though not fully realized.”

Tufano, then a professor at the Harvard Business School, not only accepted the challenge. He set a goal to create the quintessential model of a business school embedded in one of the world’s greatest universities. “Oxford,” he insists, “was better set up to do this than anywhere else in the world. Harvard strategy guru Mike Porter teaches us about looking for unfair competitive advantages. Well, our unfair advantage is being part of Oxford and taking advantage of that. It is the proverbial win win. It is the unfair thing that no one else can copy.”

AN MBA THAT LEVERAGES THE FORMIDABLE INTELLECTUAL ASSETS OF OXFORD UNIVERSITY

Since crossing the pond to assume his new post nearly four years ago, he has worked hard to tap into other parts of the wider university. He has helped to create an incubator on campus called OxfordLaunchpad, similar to Harvard’s iLab, which brings together students from across the university to work on new business ventures. He has broadened the school’s elective courses by getting other parts of the university involved in teaching business students, and he has pioneered a new range of highly innovative “integration modules.” In plain English, those latter sessions draw on Oxford professors from philosophy, literature, politics, law, sociology and the sciences to bring an eclectic point of view to large-scale challenges, ranging from big data and demographic change to water scarcity.

He’s also launched an intriguing play on the MBA dubbed the Oxford 1+1 MBA program. In roughly the same time it takes to do a more traditional two-year MBA program, Oxford will grant you two degrees: the MBA plus a Master of Science degree in one of more than two dozen subject areas in everything from computer science to comparative social policy. If you’re interested in sustainability, there’s an MS in environmental change and management or another in water science, policy and management to go along with your MBA. “In the same two years that they would otherwise spend in a North American school, they could get domain expertise and the core business experience,” says Tufano.

None of this comes cheap. The cost of the double degree program ranges from a high of £71,643 ($109,817) for the 2015-2016 academic year to a low of £65,618 ($100,582). The former is the cost of the MBA with an MS in migration studies, while the latter is the MBA-MS combo in modern Japanese studies. On the other hand, the two-year tuition at Yale School of Management’s MBA program alone is now $126,760. So it’s all relative, anyway.

A BOLD MOVE TO INCREASE MBA ENROLLMENT BY A THIRD IN A SINGLE YEAR

One very big development in Said’s MBA program will occur this fall when the incoming class shows up to campus. The school is increasing the size of its annual student intake by a third to 320 students from 240. That’s a massive step up for any school, particularly in a single year, and it will be a challenge to maintain the quality of the student body.

The class that will graduate this September has an average GMAT score of 691, along with an average of 5.4 years of work experience. Some 95% of the students are from outside the United Kingdom, representing 44 nationalities. Said does not make public its acceptance rate, though it is known to be considerably higher than U.S. elite MBA program standards, hovering just over 30%. How much higher this number will ultimately go to increase the intake by a full third is a big question.

Tufano, however, believes a larger class will help in a number of ways. The increase in gross tuition alone will amount to £3.8 million ($5.9 million), swelling the total to £15.3 million ($23.5 million). The extra cash can fund new faculty, new courses, and new support staff throughout the program. “When you’re as small as 240 students, the number of electives you offer is constrained,” he says. “Your attractiveness is also constrained on the career side. If you keep a program small, you tend not to spend as much on resources innovating. As I look at the numbers for the top schools, even at 320 we’ll still be in the bottom third. But it will allow me to grow the faculty.”

SCALE WILL BRING GREATER RESOURCES TO MAKE THE MBA PROGRAM MORE VALUABLE

The increase also signals that Said sees further growth in the MBA degree rather than in a portfolio of one-year specialized masters, a route chosen by many other schools. “We decided we want to make the MBA really great,” explains Dana Brown, director of the MBA program. “We are not branching out to a lot of specialized master’s programs. We felt we are doing well with the MBA, and we could make it even better and more valuable.”

Perhaps even more significantly, it will further distance Oxford from its perennial rival, Cambridge, which has no intentions of increasing the size of its much smaller 145-student intake. Ultimately, the increase makes Oxford a far more attractive place to recruit for the large-scale MBA recruiting machine and also makes its alumni network potentially more sizable and influential.

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.