Business Amidst Oxford's Dreaming Spires

The Saïd Business School's Stephan Chambers discusses the high-powered and academic MBA program and its focus on social entrepreneurship

Stephan Chambers is a fellow of the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford (second tier of BusinessWeek's 2004 list of top international MBA programs) in Britain. He runs the school's MBA programs, teaches New Business Development and Entrepreneurship, and works with the university's technology transfer company, Isis Innovation.

Chambers joined Oxford three years ago after a 17-year career at Blackwell Publishers. "Oxford is a fantastic place to go to business school if you care about a wider intellectual, social, and sporting community," he says. He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online reporter Jeffrey Gangemi. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: Have the number of applications increased recently?

A:

We have four admissions stages spaced evenly between October and June. Last year, we enrolled about 180 students, and the year before about 160. Next year, we would like to take about 195 students, just for the full-time MBA. But we don't really want to become a big business school.

Q: Why is your program considered an up-and-coming one?

A:

We have had a lot of press, first, because we're a department of Oxford University. And Oxford established a business school late by international standards [in 1996], nearly 100 years after the founding of many schools in the U.S. Second, we have been successful in a short time by attracting some of the best students and faculty in the world. Third, we have launched a number of initiatives, such as 2004's Social Entrepreneurship Center, a research center that was partially funded by an eBay (EBAY ) co-founder [Jeff Skoll] and allows us to offer a series of social entrepreneurship classes [using entrepreneurial approaches to address social problems] to MBA students.

We also provide five annual scholarships to people who are committed to social enterprise and wouldn't normally go to business school. That's changing the balance of the school -- both intellectually and socially.

Q: Who is a good fit for Oxford?

A:

They must have the intellectual wherewithal to pass the course, obviously. We like our students to have at least six years of work experience. They tend to be slightly older than in the U.S. Our average age is about 29 or 30 years old. They also tend to have a high GMAT score, around 690, though that's not as heavily weighted as interviews and essays.

They must be explicitly interested in a course that is intentionally high-powered and academic. They also have to believe in the inherent value of diversity. If you want to sit next to someone who is just like you, then Oxford might not be the place for you.

Q: What's the percentage of international students?

A:

Our class is about 30% American, 30% European, 30% Asian and Australasian, and the remaining 10% African, predominantly from the southern part of the continent. That's a huge difference between our programs and those in the U.S., which are overwhelmingly American. The surprising thing is how many North Americans we have coming to our program.

Q: Why do you think European and British schools are attracting more Indian and Chinese students than American schools?

A:

It probably has a lot to do with the ease with which European countries issue student visas. Now, the British government allows graduates of the top 20 programs in the world to work in the U.K. for a year with a special kind of visa. After one year, it's up to the individual to either reapply or return to their home country.

Q: How do you accommodate speakers of foreign languages?

A:

We don't provide any language instruction. To be admitted, you have to be a competent English speaker, although sometimes we make provisional offers to students who agree to improve their English before they get here.

Q: What are some of the benefits of a one-year program like yours?

A:

The benefits are rather obvious -- return on investment is vastly higher, and the opportunity cost is vastly lower. The downside is that you've got to work hard to compete with the graduates of a two-year program. The students who come here tend to relish that level of intensity.

Q: Do you feel Oxford stands up to the more established American schools?

A:

The Oxford brand travels well because it's well-known in many places around the world, even in North America. It's also slightly unusual for an American student to have an Oxford MBA, so the Oxford name provides some prestige in the marketplace.

Q: How important are interviews?

A:

We don't consider them to be hurdles that you need to be prepared to clear. We hope interviews are mutual discovery sessions that help you determine whether this is the right business school for you. We're hoping to determine if this is the kind of atmosphere in which you will flourish and add to your neighbor's experience.

It's all about whom you sit next to. Is the person you sit next to one of the big reasons that you love being in this course? The culture of Oxford is different from other business schools. We actively discourage internal competition and actively encourage collaboration. We don't grade class participation. We put a lot of pressure on people to cooperate effectively in teams or groups. Why? Because that's what you will encounter when you're working. Most organizations don't want radical individualists.

Q: What percentage of applicants do you bring in for an interview?

A

: I would estimate that we bring in just over half. One of the things that surprises people about Oxford interviews is that the interviewer cares less about what the applicant knows than about how prepared he is to defend what he believes.

Everyone who gets a place in the class will have been interviewed by an Oxford faculty member, but [only a] minority will have been interviewed on campus. We interview applicants in New York and in San Francisco at least twice a year each. We also interview in Boston and Washington D.C., as well as in India, China, Japan, Australia, and Europe.

Q: How do you evaluate work experience?

A:

We look for people who have moved up and done different things over the years. They have demonstrated success, and they aren't all management consultants. We don't care whether you're a marine biologist or an investment banker. However, you would have to be exceptional if you were 22 or 23 to get in. We do care that you're an interesting person and one who would benefit from an Oxford education.

Q: What new programs are you offering?

A:

We kicked off a Masters in Finance in the fall. If your role within a financial institution is client-based, then you probably want to earn an MBA, but if it's essentially technical or analytical, then you probably want to do the Masters of Finance. Typically, the program is for those who are younger and have a strong background in finance.

Q: What kinds of recruiters come to campus?

A:

We slug it out with the rest of the business schools for attention from the major investment banks and consulting, accounting, and technology firms.

Q: How do you plan to attract more women to your program?

A:

We have fewer women than we would like. We are now hovering around 24% or 25%, which is slightly lower than some of the major U.S. programs. All our efforts to attract women involve marketing and making our promotions as inclusive as possible. We target sectors that draw disproportionate numbers of women. We use mentoring to encourage people to apply. Our goal is to eventually have a class that is 35% female, which would be slightly higher than the average.

Q: How is your alumni network?

A:

We have graduated relatively few students. We have a graduate alumni network called the Oxford Business Alumni Network, available to any graduate of the university who is working in business (even non-MBAs), which allows us to expand our [own] network.

Q: What is the ultimate goal of the program?

A:

Our goal is to become one of the top MBA programs in the world. We're among the best programs in Europe, and we're on the right track worldwide. But we still have a ways to go. Less trivially than that, I think our goal is to create a distinctive intellectual experience for our students. We're not just about making people rich and getting people jobs. We're about helping people understand why organizations are the way they are, and how and why they evolved.

Q: How do U.S. students like Oxford?

A:

What they tend to rave about is twofold. This business school is a department of a major university, so you can associate with physicists, lawyers, and historians from outside the business school. You also get the chance to attend an 800-year-old institution, which inspires an amazing amount of loyalty. You have to wear a white bow tie for exams and a gown for dinner, and people love that.

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