Feeling Bullish At Durham University Business School

Susan Hart, dean of Durham University Business School. Courtesy photo

These are exciting times at Durham University, and not only because of the chaos of Brexit that looms over the entire island of Britain.

Over the last two years, Durham University Business School’s 12- to 18-month MBA has caught the attention of Europe (and beyond) in the rankings, vaulting from 75th place to 43rd in The Financial Times‘ Global Ranking; meanwhile Durham’s blended online MBA has held on to a precious position in FT‘s 2019 ranking of online programs, despite that list’s contraction to only 10 spots. On the research front, Durham has carved out a reputation as a redoubt of cutting-edge research, particularly into energy and clean growth, where it has positioned itself as a leader on the question of how to tackle climate change. Durham’s commitment to addressing what many in the business school community see as the dominant issue of our time earned the school a spot last year among the top 30 institutions globally in the Corporate Knights Better World MBA ranking.

Now Durham is looking for a new home, one befitting an institution on the rise. The school’s 70 million pound relocation to the historic center of the city — its first major move since its founding in 1965 — may only be in the planning stage, but everyone involved knows it will transform not only the school but the city itself. The new building has been envisioned as a 12,000-square-meter research hub, office space for hundreds, and business event and conference center; Durham is a town of fewer than 70,000, according to the latest census, where much of the architecture and even infrastructure dates to the 17th and 18th centuries, means the proposed new building will unavoidably have a huge and permanent impact on its hometown.

Competing for attention with the city’s 12th-century cathedral and its 13th/14th-century castle, Durham’s new building — slated to open in 2022 — will need to be magnificent. Susan Hart, Durham University Business School’s dean, says that’s the plan.

“It would have really state-of-the-art collaborative teaching space focused on the things you would find routinely in business schools, the kind of facilities that are flexible, make full use of information technology, and that promote collaborative learning rather than the ‘sage on the stage’-type approach,” Hart tells P&Q. “So it’s very exciting, and we want to give it the highest standards in terms of its carbon footprint. We’re looking at innovative solutions on using the water from the river as part of the heating and cooling system, for example. And we’re also looking at concepts of zero-carbon concrete. We really are looking to push the boundaries on making this a very sustainable building.”


Of late, Durham University Business School has been best known for its online program, ranked seventh by The Financial Times this year, down from fifth last year— but still in the top 10, which is significant in part because there is only a top 10. At a relatively low cost of £21,000, Durham offers five core modules in Accounting, Finance, and Economics; Leading and Managing People; Marketing; Operations and Technology; and Strategic Management. It offers three distinct pathways: Entrepreneurship and New Venture Creation, Management Consultancy and Project Management, or Business Analytics and Technology Innovation. And it offers, like the best B-schools, a ladder to higher pay and greater responsibility. The results speak for themselves, with 87% graduating within five years, up 4 percentage points from last year. So why the slip? Durham’s salary increase at three years out is listed as 25%, lowest (with UNC) of the 10 schools in FT‘s 2019 ranking with an average salary $124,661. That’s down $15,597 from 2018.

The FT‘s Global ranking is where Durham has been making the most noise. With 94% of grads employed three months after earring their degree, Durham is ranked sixth in the UK, 13th in Europe, and 43rd globally, up from 75th just two short years ago. Credit FT’s heavy emphasis on salary: Durham grads are thriving, making an average $120,556, up $16,250 from last year. Durham’s Value for Money rank is first in the UK and Europe and second in the world.

One more remarkable stat for Durham: Its MBA program has been very female-friendly. In 2017, women comprised fully two-thirds — 67% — of the full-time MBA class. And while that number has dipped to 44% in the cohort that entered last fall, that’s still better than most of Durham’s European counterparts and all but two of the top 50 U.S. schools.

“I think partly it’s that we have different tracks on the MBA,” Hart says. “I think it’s actually that the product attracts people in that way. So it is a general MBA that covers the things that you expect an MBA to cover, but we have three separate tracks: a technology track, a consulting track, and an entrepreneurship track. And I think that right from the outset, when you’re on the website or you’re looking through brochures, you can see that it’s not just a one-size-fits-all program, and I think that’s attractive to women.”


At the core of Durham University Business School, Hart tells P&Q, is a commitment to sustainability. That takes the shape of not only faculty research into sustainable development and climate change, but also supporting student environmental initiatives and weaving social responsibility and actions into each of its programs.

Hart says that in the current shifting political environment, business schools must ensure that the world’s future leaders have a firm moral compass “and a thorough understanding of how their actions impact the world around them, in order to enact real change.”

“You asked what the big ideas are,” says Hart, the former dean of Strathclyde Business School and a visiting lecturer at a number of prominent schools across the globe. “I think we have to be engaged in research that’s about the betterment of the economy and the development of wealth, but we are also collectively interested in what are the more negative effects of doing that, and how can we do research to mitigate those and change conceptual frameworks over time that will decrease those negative effects. That’s gonna be a neverending call, isn’t it? But nonetheless, there’s a lot of research specifically addressing that. And it’s really interesting and impactful.”


And then there is Brexit, the UK’s (now safe to describe as) tortured withdrawal from the European Union as mandated in a 2016 plebiscite. Hart joined Durham in the months after the Brexit vote — a time of great uncertainty — and her goal was to ensure that through it all the school continued to provide business programs that not only equip students with the modern knowledge, capabilities, and mindset to “conduct themselves successfully in an ever-shifting global business landscape,” but also to ensure that the school didn’t lose its ethic of giving back to its community.

It’s a perspective that suits student interests, Hart says, citing a surge in interest amongst applicants to study in programs like Durham’s that have an ethical focus and to work in industries where success is not measured by financial profit alone. It would be a shame to see Brexit blow all that up by negatively impacting the diversity of viewpoints that a large international student population provides.

“What we’ve done so far, and again I’ve done this with this year’s full-time MBA, I meet the MBA students informally,” Hart says. “I think it’s important that they have sight of the staff if you’re head of the school. I’ve got no illusions — it’s not a personal thing, it’s just they want the leadership to be interested in them.

“So I meet them and we have lunch and we talk these things over; and we’ve also done broad surveys which suggest that in the UK, either 63% or 64% of students who have come, both undergraduate and post-graduate, right across the UK, would be completely unaffected by Brexit. That’s almost touted as, ‘So we don’t have to worry.’ I look at that statistic and say, ‘Hmm, 60% say yes, so that means that 37% might not have come’ — and that’s a heck of a number.”

(See the next pages for Poets&Quants‘ Q&A with Susan Hart, dean of Durham University Business School. It has been edited for length and clarity.)

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