New Manager

‘B-school rankings are incredibly imperfect'

Updated on: Apr 03, 2012
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Deep domain expertise can be extraordinarily helpful in a business career.

Prior to joining Oxford in July last year, Dr Peter Tufano, Dean and Professor of Finance at Said Business School, was on the other side of the Atlantic. At Harvard Business School, for over 22 years he held several responsibilities, including that of Senior Associate Dean.

In Mumbai for the sixth edition of the Oxford India Business Forum, Dr Tufano took time out to speak to The New Manager . He underlines the need to view B-school rankings in perspective, and look beyond the stereotypical MBA in the present day.

Asked to compare Harvard and Oxford, he says, ‘Two wonderful universities'. But he is on a mission to move the 15-year-old Said Business School to greater heights, even while refusing to attach too much importance to ratings. Said is placed 20th globally ( FT , 2012).

One of his first steps has been the 1+1 MBA announced recently, drawing on the inherent strengths of Oxford University. Edited excerpts:

There still seems to be first preference for B-schools in the US?

That is changing. The entire business school competitive landscape is evolving very, very rapidly. We can argue about business school rankings — they are incredibly imperfect.

Having said that, we are currently ranked 20th in the FT rankings. In that list of 20, there's a bunch of schools that are relatively new. Indian School of Business is ranked pretty highly; there are also a number of schools from Europe that are up there. There's a lot of movement in this space, which is discomforting as a dean but it's great for the market. You can't teach about competition and believe in competition being good but say, ‘It shouldn't apply to me'.

There was a dominance of the US in the MBA market. I am not saying that's gone away completely, but it's changing. They say the world is getting flat. In many ways, it is. We're seeing more US students wanting to go abroad, more students from other countries doing so as well.

I suspect that 10 or 20 years from now, those rankings could look even more different than they do now.

Do the rankings reflect the pulse of the corporate world and the student community, or is it the other way round? Do students get influenced by them?

Applicants do look at the rankings, as imperfect as they are. Different rankings measure different things. For example, it is not uncommon in rankings to measure salaries offered. There's logic to measuring salary. However, when a lot of your students go into entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship, that ranking gets affected.

Students may be going into jobs in all kinds of sectors, where they can have very satisfying lives. The salary score may not reflect that, at least not immediately.

Business school rankings by salary measure what they get when they step out — not where they are a few years down the road. The real metrics should be what your students are up to five or ten years out of school.

There is also a disconnect between the language at business schools and reality. They say they want students to go into all kinds of sectors, not just finance and consulting. But the rankings on the basis of salary encourage schools to encourage students to go only into the highest paying jobs. So in the particular instance of salary, rankings can be misleading.

But the best students, seeking admission, would want to get into schools that can get them the best paying jobs?

That is part of the answer. I think students today also want to go to schools that can prepare them for the lives they want to lead.

If you want a career in Green Tech or Clean Tech, and do a two-year MBA at Oxford, with two degrees, and two networks, maybe you won't get into a consulting firm. But you'll get where you want to. And that may be the future.

How is that comparable on metrics to a business school that's only a business school? We hope that if we're successful with the 1+1 MBA, we're going to make it much more difficult to make sense of the rankings business.

You've spoken extensively about drawing on strengths of being part of a large university. Tell us about the 1+1 MBA, which leverages that. How will it benefit students?

Increasingly, there is a need for depth. Whether it's a one-year programme or two-year programme, business schools are not set up to deliver depth. Because, we are inherently organised around a number of disciplines, like finance, accounting and marketing. While we may get depth in any one of those disciplines, there is much more that we are unable to teach students.

One of the first things we launched after a few months of my arrival at Oxford, is a new programme, the Oxford 1+1 MBA programme. Our regular MBA is a one-year programme. The 1+1 programme is a two-year experience at Oxford.

In the first year, you get depth — deep domain expertise. The second year is the one-year MBA programme for breadth. The depth could be in one of our four Masters programmes in environment, one of four in education, computer science, social science or the Internet; or it could be in the study of contemporary India or biomedical engineering or clinical embryology.

Depth can be extraordinarily helpful in a business career. And the combination of depth and breadth can only be offered meaningfully by a world-class university.

At Oxford, we are blessed with hundreds of one-year Masters programmes, allowing students to specialise in any number of topics. I think this is going to be a powerful model to prepare students for the future.

I also think this addresses the uncertainty of structural shift in the economy. I got my MBA in 1984. Finance had taken off a few years prior. It's still relevant and we have a very good finance MBA, but we also have things that could be increasingly relevant. Whether it is a manager for science or technology — or India or China — we have the depth of experts and the breadth at Oxford to prepare them.

Even for those in the regular one-year MBA programme, we are going to take information from around the university, draw on sources from outside the business school and bring that into the curriculum.

How has the response been to the 1+1 MBA?

We just announced this a few months ago, and it is in process. The early reactions have been extremely positive. This idea didn't come out of the blue. In some sense, it was tested — it has long been a part of Oxford education, called the Rhodes Scholars programme. I also tested this concept at Harvard with CEOs and businesspeople. It resonated with them as well.

How big is Said Business School at Oxford, in terms of faculty strength?

We have over 60 full-time faculty members at the Said Business School. It's a relatively small faction of the university's broad faculty. We are a small piece and this is a good thing. It allows us to be nimble, and to collaborate with various parts of the university.

There are strategic parts of the university where I hope we can be tremendously valuable. A business school should be the bridge between the university and the business community.

Tell us something about the new project for the UK Government, with Deloitte…

We have a BT Centre for Major Programme Management at Said. Our researchers there work on how to manage large, complex projects — it could be infrastructure, IT and so on. These projects involve thousands of people, and budgets could be in the range of billions. In addition, we have been offering a Masters programme in Major Programme Management for a few years now.

Earlier this year, the UK Government put out a contract, to bid to train leading civil servants who run major programmes for the government. We bid for that contract along with our partner Deloitte, and we were successful.

This means that Oxford will be training 300 to 500 leading civil servants of the UK, to manage the largest projects for the UK government. If I recall right, the UK government spends in excess of £300 billion on these projects, and the success ratio is a little over 30 per cent. Which means, 70 per cent of these projects either fail to be on time, on budget or complete as defined by the programme.

Our hope is that in training this coterie of major programme managers in civil service, we increase that rate considerably from 30 per cent.

If you think about these three activities, it's about research leading to teaching and embodied in executive education that has an impact.

How diverse is the nationality spread at Said Business School?

In our MBA programme, students come from more than 50 countries. Ninety five per cent of the students are from outside the UK, from 51 countries. This makes it an extraordinarily diverse place.

It is reflective of the overall Oxford postgraduate community. Our postgraduate programmes are extraordinarily diverse in a way the US schools are not. If you look at the top schools in America, including the one that I used to be at, probably fewer than 40 per cent would be international students.

At Said, there are students from all over — the US, Canada, Australia, India… I think of the 248 students in our MBA programme, 54 are from India.

Do you see idealism vanishing from the fresh crop of students coming in to B-schools?

Absolutely to the contrary! Maybe we are just blessed with it at Said, but one of the specialities we have is social entrepreneurship. We run the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. In March, we run the Skoll World Forum, which is the world's leading gathering of social entrepreneurs. We have a cluster of extraordinarily idealistic students. One of our students has come back to India. He runs a courier company employing deaf people — Dhruv Lakra, and the company is Mirakle Couriers.

My students are far less cynical and far more idealistic than many others I have met. It's quite refreshing.

Published on March 12, 2018

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