Oxford knows its own business

December 1, 2000

John Kay's US-style vision for the Said Business School was not appropriate, says David Holmes.

John Kay's thinly disguised attack on Oxford University's processes and procedures in last week's THES deserves a response for those readers who may be all too ready to believe that Cornford's Microcosmographica Academica is alive and well in Oxford.

I arrived as registrar at Oxford in 1998 and, along with many others, spent huge numbers of hours in my first year seeking to help John Kay realise his vision for the new Said Business School.

I have great respect for that vision of excellence, but considerably less for the style and tactics that were utilised at that time to try to bring the vision about.

The now repeated complaints about the university's perceived lack of a strategy for its business school in fact reflect a disagreement over a strategy that had been laid down by the university before the first director was appointed.

This strategy is that the business school should develop as an integrated part of the university, linked to and drawing vigour from the multidisciplinary research strengths and the student-oriented teaching methods characteristic of Oxford. At no time has our strategy been to reproduce an American-style business school on the banks of the Isis.

Of course, establishing a major enterprise such as a world-class business school within Oxford, with appropriate links to many parts of the larger university, has its complexities. But it would not have been any easier to address these if we had conceded to the often repeated plea for differential salaries within the school.

By making such a short-sighted move, we would have shown neglect for the needs and aspirations of the vast majority of our staff. Instead, a little patience and a broader approach has enabled us to establish appropriate systems to reward staff across the university, although more remains to be done.

Besides this, the success of such a venture is dependent on several other things. It requires: fostering good relations with those in adjacent areas, whose cooperation one will need during the growth period; a nurturing and detailed business plan to which senior management can subscribe; clear and convincing projections; close control of costs; and commitment of time in the early stages to resolving issues that can appear, at first sight, to be mere detail but which have potentially substantial implications.

Oxford clearly recognises the importance of change, innovation and the need to raise more funding in order to continue to compete internationally. There is absolutely no complacency about any of that in the university's senior bodies. The context is international, not simply United Kingdom competition.

The deal with an investment bank, which the university announced last week, to secure the final tranche of funding for our new chemistry laboratories, is clear proof that we are looking for innovative ways to raise money. Oxford has raised £60 million in a year for that initiative, and the indicators of success in terms of external grant income (£1 million in 1999-2000), employability of graduates, and research assessment exercise/teaching quality assessment performance, are clear to see. And we are also busy forming alliances with Princeton and other universities in the United States.

Oxford has recently gone through a substantial process of restructuring the way it runs itself, with the aim of clarifying, simplifying and expediting the conduct of its ordinary business. It has devolved decisions to their appropriate level, devolved resources to match them and provided the mechanisms for this to happen.

John Kay has stated elsewhere that he has certain knowledge that this has failed. I think that is surprising, given that most of the discussion of the reform and its adoption took place more than a year after he left the university. It is doubly surprising, given that the new structure was implemented only eight weeks ago.

For the rest, if this or any other university really did not have resource planning or a budgeting system, the Higher Education Funding Council for England would have been down on it like a ton of bricks long ago.

David Holmes is registrar at the University of Oxford.

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