Candidates, follow our curriculum and prepare for global government

Billionaire-backed Oxford school takes leaf out of US book. David Matthews reports

October 11, 2012

The enrolment of the first cohort of students at the University of Oxford's Blavatnik School of Government represents not just a new step for the university, but also a sign that such institutions - long a feature in the US - may become more common in the UK.

The 39 students, who hail from 17 countries, will study for a one-year master's degree in public policy (MPP), a qualification common in the US for aspiring public servants but rare in this country.

But the aim of the course is not to turn students into the next generation of policy wonks, explained Ngaire Woods, a former lecturer in government at Harvard University and the school's dean.

"It's [about] being able to access and use the expert advice of others," she said, adding that those entering government required rigorous training and honing of their powers of analysis, particularly as politicians in the UK were inclined to make decisions "on a whim".

The creation of the school was made possible by a £75 million donation from American-Russian tycoon Leonard Blavatnik, whom Forbes magazine estimates to be worth $12.5 billion (£7.7 billion) and who made some of his fortune during the post-Soviet privatisation of state-owned industries in the 1990s.

Professor Woods said that she had looked at around a dozen "top schools" of government from across the world when formulating the Blavatnik School's course, and stressed that unlike many public policy programmes, the MPP was about more than simply "cobbling together" pre-existing modules from different faculties.

"We started with a fresh sheet of paper," she said, creating the course first and only then working out how it could be delivered by Oxford's faculties.

The MPP teaches some of the practical skills in areas such as finance and strategy that are usually part of an MBA, Professor Woods said, while leaving out the training in research methodologies that might be more suitable for those likely to pursue academic careers.

Developing vision

Unlike other school-of-government programmes, the Blavatnik School course aims to take a truly global perspective, paying equal attention to rich and poor countries.

Temitope Folaranmi, a medical doctor from Nigeria who is taking the MPP with a view to helping developing countries improve their healthcare systems, said that the course's "intensive" first week had featured an "amazing array" of academics.

He has already completed a master's degree in public health at Harvard, but found the course "was very US-centric and I needed a programme with a developing country context".

Next year the school aims to enrol 60 students on the MPP course, with the cohort eventually rising to 120, Professor Woods said. In three years the school will move to a permanent home in Oxford's Radcliffe Observatory Quarter development.

With tuition fees of £30,000 in 2012-13, the course is not cheap. However, 25 students this year are on full scholarships and another seven are partially funded.

Only one student accepted on to the course in 2012-13 was unable to attend because they could not afford the fees, Professor Woods added.

Humanities is not enough

The University of Edinburgh's Academy of Government, founded in 2011, is the only other institution in the UK to offer an MPP course.

Charlie Jeffery, director of the academy, said that in the UK "we have had this generalist tradition of preparation for public service", but a "professionalisation of government generally" was now taking place.

This made preparatory courses such as the MPP essential and meant that a good humanities degree was often no longer enough on its own to get into government, Professor Jeffery added.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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