All sewn up:Oxford bags-of-money

January 15, 1999

Having seen off disdainful dons and eco-warriors, Oxford's Said business school is on course to open in 2000, with a complement of Pounds 80,000-a-year staff. Jennifer Currie and Sian Griffiths report John Kay leans back in his chair. Small, with a shock of unruly hair, he looks like a relieved man. On the table in front of him lies an architect's photo of a Pounds 25 million building - Oxford University's new Said business school.

Kay, director of the new school, has a right to look relieved. For now he can finally tell the world that the construction of the controversial business school, financed by Syrian-born businessman Wafic Said, is going ahead. A "huge space" has been bulldozed in Oxford near the railway station, protesting eco-warriors have been moved on, Said is "finally signing cheques" and the school even has a projected opening date - October 2000.

Wafic Said's dream of building a business school in Oxford has been dogged by controversy since its inception three years ago. When first asked about the business school proposals, Oxford dons voted against them. At the time there were newspaper reports of Said's involvement in a Pounds 20 billion arms deal between British Aerospace and Saudi Arabia and some dons were scathing about whether business studies could really be considered an academic subject. But the factor that seems to have most swayed the fellows was the university's choice of a site for the school: playing fields promised in perpetuity to Merton College.

After the embarrassment of the negative vote there was a lot of kerfuffle and much behind-the-scenes negotiation. Kay says he is surprised Said did not pull out: "I do not think if it had been me I would have stuck with the project for so long. But he has."

Finally a new site was found, one the dons could live with. There were still problems - the need to get planning permission from the city council, (it came though last month), a listed prefabricated railway station which has now been packed flat and sent off to railway enthusiasts in Buckinghamshire, and the protesting eco-warriors. "We have removed some trees, which I don't think the eco-warriors were too pleased about," acknowledges Kay, with a grin, "but we are going to plant lots of new ones around the school to obscure the hideous executive homes that surround it."

What was seen by some as a highly controversial scheme is finally being accepted. Ask Kay how he feels about working with Wafic Said - he talks to him by phone perhaps once a month - and he is fulsome in his praise. Oxford, he says, was built on the money of private benefactors.

"Take Balliol College, John Balliol was a rogue." Said, he continues, is "charming", "determined" and a "private" person - "a great benefactor".

"As well as combining commitment and experience, he's also keeping his hands off. If the British government took the same attitude to universities we'd be very well placed." He pauses to drive home his point. "No, but there is a real issue here. The idea that private funding is more burdensome than public funding is bizarre."

Of course there are strings attached to the Said donation, but these are all, says Kay, sensible conditions. The last one was that there had to be planning permission for the building. The university also had to undertake to match Said's Pounds 20 million pound for pound - so far the matching total stands at Pounds 12 million. And the Said foundation is constructing the building and there is a Said representative on the business school's council. But at the end of the day, says Kay, Said is "not too concerned about the specifics. He wants a distinguished building and a distinguished institution."

The distinguished building is being provided by architects Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, who redesigned London's new Royal Opera House. They have come up with a grand classical design, complete with Greek-style amphitheatre, which Kay rather fancies appearing in. "I can stand in the middle and orate," he says jokingly.

No less grand is his vision for the institution. By October 2000, if his plans are realised, Oxford University will have one of the best business schools in the world, pulling in millions of pounds a year.

But do we really need yet another British business school? Well, says Kay, there may be 120 MBA courses in the UK but only a handful are in the top league. "I do not want to make grandiose claims at the moment but this is about playing in an international league. There are around six business schools in Europe in this league and about 20 in the US. If Oxford is not competing in that kind of league it should not be in this business."

He takes heart from the fact that even over the past two years, operating out of the old Radcliffe Infirmary, the students, who have paid Pounds 15,000 to enrol on the university's fledgling one-year MBA programmes have the highest GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test) scores in Europe.

Sixty started on the university's third MBA course in October - 30 per cent of them American and several of them lawyers. Kay says that future cohorts will be attracted by one of the business school's unique selling points - integration with the university's college and tutorial system.

For even if some Oxford dons are decidedly sniffy about the academic value of business studies - English professor Valentine Cunningham, for instance, who described it as a "phoney academic subject" - colleges are "queueing up", according to Kay, to enrol fellows from the new business school.

Delighted at the enthusiasm, he is just as surprised at how easy it has been. "I haven't had to harangue governing bodies. The objection that business studies is not a proper subject, that has gone. The opposition has been reduced to a few diehards, most people have now accepted business studies, just as they accepted physics and medicine." Ten Oxford colleges now have business and management fellows and Kay predicts that two years from now as many as two-thirds of the colleges will have signed up. "No one has refused yet." After all, as he rather smugly points out, 60 per cent of Oxford's undergraduates end up in business.

What might reruffle all the smoothed feathers is the news that business school academics will pocket pretty high salaries. The professorial standard is around Pounds 40,000 - the business school professors will earn double that, Kay confirms confidently. "Salaries will be internationally competitive. You couldn't expect to attract the kind of business professionals we have for anything less."

A recruitment drive is about to be launched to boost the school's 25 staff to a complement of 45. Kay is looking for "bright young people interested in being turned into business school teachers rather than the other way round". And there are ambitious plans for what Kay calls "phase two" of the development - after October 2000. These involve developing an undergraduate programme - for which projected students will have to pay a lot more than the government's Pounds 1,000 tuition fee - one reason the plans are still tentative.

Kay sees phase two as an opportunity to develop another high-fliers' course. "Undergraduate management courses outside Oxford are not that good.

The best students do not do them. What I visualise is less a management course than a course that is aimed at people who are going to have business careers." So the degree will encompass sociology, anthropology, psychology, international politics, etc, and only at the end will financial and business oriented subjects be introduced."

Of course, Oxford's Templeton College has long offered business courses, but partnership talks between it and the Said school came to nothing.

"Although we welcomed the idea of partnership, we did not welcome the idea of being subsumed," said Templeton dean Rory Knight.

Kay, however, is undaunted and can see nothing but benefits for the university from the new development. "We still have a long way to go to catch up with Cambridge in terms of donors. After all the fuss about the location, the business school will now be one minute away from the railway station, which is great. When you come in from the east, one of the first things you see is Magdalen College - historic Oxford. When you come in from the west we will be what you see - the new Oxford - the new spires of the business school."

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