Durham University Business School 50 Years

By | 22nd May 2017

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Durham University Business School 50 Years

Two of our most respected former members of staff (pictured), Professor John Machin (Director 1965–89) and Professor Robin Smith (MBA Programme Director 1970–91), recall the founding of the School.

It was becoming clear by the early 1960s that British business was no longer competing effectively in world markets. A quest began to identify causes and propose remedies. One factor immediately obvious was the lack of management educational opportunities within universities, contrasting with the position in North America and several European countries.

With the expansion of universities following the Robbins Report came additional funding via the Foundation for Management Education. Durham successfully applied for ‘seedcorn’ money, and in 1964 a Management Development Unit was established. A Reader in Economics (Alan Odber) and a Senior Lecturer in Psychology (Charles Baker) were seconded into the Unit and two lecturers from industry (John Constable and John Machin) were recruited on three-year contracts. John Constable taught production and later business strategy, and John Machin finance and management control.

Within two years, the investment was manifestly showing results. When the four pioneers first met, none had ever been inside a business school, nor had they experienced management education at university level. Their plan was a twin-track approach. Initially they decided to offer residential courses for practising managers locally and nationally in 1965, a process aided by existing contacts with the then dominate Teesside industries of steel and chemicals and Tyneside engineering firms. Secondly, the expertise gained was a suitable platform from which to launch the MSc in Management Studies two years later, places being substantially oversubscribed. Both Constable and Machin won external funding to study for a year at Harvard, which reinforced their view that an effective Masters degree should be subdivided into three: core and optional modules, followed by a project dissertation. This fitted neatly into the classical university notion of terms.

The expansion model was thus fixed. Surpluses generated by post-experience courses were ploughed back to fund new teaching posts, and such was the confidence shown by the University that DUBS soon became a department in its own right, and staff were given permanent contracts. By 1974 new posts had been filled by Peter Manley (finance), Lyn Wilson (marketing), Mike Jenkins (computer science), David Longbottom (operations management), Jeffrey Rackham (behavioural science), Mike Reynolds (managerial psychology), Robin Smith and Derek Sawbridge (both industrial relations) and Bhadhur Najak (accounting). David Ashton came from Bradford Business School to head the post experience programme. Perhaps most significantly Allan Gibb, already a research fellow, was appointed in 1970 to the first post in small business, from which position he created the internationally known Small Business Centre.

In its early years DUBS had occupied space in Old Elvet, with its teaching room down an alleyway overlooking the Dun Cow pub. This became the effective common room and indeed on many occasions the unofficial seminar room. But in 1977 DUBS moved into the present site at Mill Hill (pictured). To describe it then as ‘purpose-built’ would be to stretch a point, since in a late cost-cutting move the planned dining room was axed. This proved a mighty challenge to the caterers – bedrooms but no dining room – who met it with great panache. Yet more short-course income rectified this anomaly within five years.

In 1981 DUBS received its first-ever investigation from the Funding authority (the University Grants Committee) under their new powers. The Chairman was pretty complimentary on the whole, but he was concerned that compared with other schools we were low in staff numbers. He did note however that on an earned income per head basis we were higher even than the mighty London Business School, favourably located in Regent’s Park. Growth continued. The title MBA was introduced to enhance global appeal, followed by the open-learning MBA for those who could not take a year away from work.

But change was in the air for all universities as the 1980s rolled on, with funding shifting towards research as measured by output in academic journals. This proved a greater challenge for business schools than conventional university departments, which had not needed to earn income to fund growth. By the 1990s, recruitment of staff to DUBS increasingly reflected this requirement. In the twenty-first century, the merger of DUBS with economics and accounting consummated the transition of an institution that still holds dear to that early notion of education for the betterment of all nations’ prosperity.

Right: an aerial shot of the School in 2013