OUBSS: the beginning of OUBEP

The period immediately following the Second World War was one of immense political, economic and social change.

In the United Kingdom, a new Labour Government led by Clement Attlee was elected in 1945 and took major steps towards establishing a Welfare State with the introduction of the National Health Service, universal education and pension legislation. In addition, the economy had to cope with the impact of a programme of nationalization, which brought a number of industries, including the railways and mining, into public ownership.

Furthermore, social order had been transformed during the war. Women were playing a significantly enhanced role in the workplace and returning soldiers were expecting an increased standard of living in reward for their efforts. The pre-war status quo was being rejected. Toward the end of the Atlee Government in 1951, Europe was witnessing the first stirrings of Europe-wide economic thinking, with France and Germany proposing and establishing co-operation via The European Iron and Steel Federation. The United Kingdom opted to stay out of this early economic union, claiming that it infringed national sovereignty.286_oubep_informal_2_670

This huge period of change was a catalyst for various reactions in both the private and public sectors in the UK. In general, business was opposed to the large-scale nationalisation that was taking place and voiced concerns that the programme could, if unchecked, continue to roll on until the basis for a Communist Regime was established. After all, France had been close to a Communist Government in the immediate post war period and Russia was exercising her new power across Europe.

Both the Conservatives and Liberal parties, who between them had almost exclusively shared parliamentary power over the previous centuries appeared unprepared for this growing new socialism, but were not prepared to buck what was a popular trend. Also, the economic tools used by Government had been in place – and had not developed much – since the days of Adam Smith and Maynard Keynes. The future seemed more and more unpredictable.

It was in the middle of this political, economic and social ‘soup’ that a group of respected business leaders and government figures met informally at Oxford University. They discussed the economics of the day and how future understanding between the key economic protagonists – Government and business – could be improved to meet the new challenges of this rapidly changing environment. The group was led by Norman Leyland*, Director of the Oxford Centre for Management Studies (OCMS) (later Templeton College and now the University’s Said Business School’s Executive Education Centre, Egrove Park). Others involved in the meetings included involved representatives of a new breed of mainly socialist thinking Oxford Economists, including Derek Robinson, who was later to be appointed Principal of Ruskin College. From the world of business, a number of major companies were represented, including the petrol giants Esso and Shell.

…to bring the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ from the public and private sectors together, to better understand modern economic thinking and therefore the bigger picture in which they would one day operate.

The discussions led to the conclusion was that it was probably too late to change the attitudes of those individuals who held the power of the day, but that it could be extremely beneficial to bring the ‘leaders of tomorrow’ from the public and private sectors together, to better understand modern economic thinking and therefore the bigger picture in which they would one day operate. It was also understood that by better understanding the goals, challenges and priorities of different sectors, the general economy and society could benefit.

Of course, there was much to be done if this idea was ever to become reality. Developing the content of a course that would benefit the prospective delegates was relatively straightforward: It could be compiled by a group of tutors drawn from the Economics dons of Oxford University’s colleges. However, the University Colleges could not run external courses and this was a major barrier.

Under the rules of the University, any course that used the Oxford University name had to be under the control of the University. The solution, therefore, was to establish a course under the auspices of the Careers Service; which was an authorised University Department. The Oxford University Business Summer School (OUBSS), was born and had the added advantage of strengthen the University’s links with both Government and business, that would assist graduates in finding suitable employment.

What was a most forward-thinking and innovative plan was finally enshrined in the Statutes of the University.

Overseeing the setting of the course structure and syllabus could not be passed to the dons, but a perfectly suitable body was available in the form of the Oxford Centre for Management Studies (OCMS). Both the Careers Service and OCMS appointed four members to the Steering Committee and, although they could co-opt additional members, only these eight officially appointed committee members had voting rights. In practice the Director of the Careers Service and the Principal of the Oxford Centre for Management Studies appointed themselves and filled the other positions by appointing Economic dons or representatives from major companies who used the OUBSS as part of their top development training programme. This structure has continued to this day. What was a most forward-thinking and innovative plan was finally enshrined in the Statutes of the University.

The initial course was held in the summer of 1953 and ran for four weeks. During the first 25 years or so, course numbers were limited to 40 delegates. The programme was delivered by a Senior Tutor and five Syndicate Tutors, each responsible for syndicates of eight delegates. A Course Director was appointed from a candidate company to oversee administration and generally ‘oil the wheels’ to ensure that all delegates and their sponsor organizations achieved their objectives. The course was quickly oversubscribed and candidates were interviewed by Committee to select the best applicants.

Each candidate was expected to spend all four weeks in College with no contact with their offices during the course. The course was built on a series of lectures followed by syndicate discussion. This same format still exists today, as do the visiting external speakers from the worlds of business, economics and government, who deliver lectures or speeches and answer questions from delegates. The syndicates were assigned national and international projects and a personal project essay which was agreed with the syndicate tutor and for which temporary readership of the Bodleian was given.

Discussions with outside speakers on a Chatham House basis were allowed. Those who sent candidates were informed that there would be no feedback from the tutors regarding the performance of their candidates.

Initial major supporters included Shell, Esso, Procter & Gamble, Unilever, The Commonwealth Office, The Inland Revenue, The Post Office, ICI, and Barclays together with various merchant banks. External speakers included Government Ministers, Senior Civil Servants, Ambassadors, Chairmen of major companies, Trade Union leaders, and leading Economists. This mix of delegates and speakers is what gave the OUBSS – and continues to give its successor the OUBEP Summer School – its’ unique flavour. While many changes have occurred during the last 55 years, the essence of this unique and most valuable experience still remains as the original group of distinguished leaders designed it.

Additional information provided by  Dorothy Cooke, Emeritus Fellow, Green Templeton College

* Norman Leyland was a Fellow of Brasenose (its first Lecturer in Economics) and Bursar of Brasenose from 1957, before becoming the founding Director of OCMS in 1965. Prior to the founding OCMS he was influential in the setting up of OUBSS.

Written by Ron Harryman (former OUBSS/OUBEP Chairman)