Sixty years of OUBEP

When an Oxford academic, a banker, an executive from an industrial multi-national, a representative of a leading non-governmental organization and a servant of the public sector get together you may expect to see sparks flying as various ardent views on the global economy are aired. However, make a visit to Egrove Park during the intense two weeks of the Oxford University Business Economic Programme’s (OUBEP) Summer School and you may well be surprised.

OUBEP brings together an international gathering of bright minds from the worlds of industry, public sector and non-governmental organizations to better understand and discuss the economic impact of the global economy.

OUBEP is unique. For a start, it is the only external faculty of Oxford University; it is believed to be the oldest business education course in the world; and it brings together an international gathering of bright minds from the worlds of industry, public sector and non-governmental organizations to better understand and discuss the economic impact of the global economy.

What’s more, in just two weeks of learning, debate and project work, the delegates broadly cover both the micro- and macro-economic content of an undergraduate degree under the tutelage of members of the University’s economics faculty. Throw in some lectures from a raft of leading academics as well as leaders from both the political and business spectra and you have a recipe that expands the minds and changes the thinking of delegates. The focus is on discussion, not simply listening.

In the last 60 years, many OUBEP alumni have gone on to high-ranking positions in their various fields. And, anyone who has been on the course will often reflect on the knowledge gained through the experience of the course. So, what brought this unique forum together and how has it managed to stand the test of 60 years?

273_oubep_1953_1000To get the answers, we have to go back to post-war Britain; a time of immense political, economic and social change. A new Labour Government led by Clement Atlee had been elected in 1947 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.

While in Britain, much attention was being focused on the national economy, a group of Oxford University alumni – who also happened to be leaders in some of Britain’s foremost industrial concerns and Government – returned to the University to discuss the matters of the day at the invitation of John Templeton, Principal of the newly established Oxford Centre for Management Studies (later Templeton College and now Egrove Park).

They discussed the economic situation 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 discussions soon moved from British shores to consider the wider impact of new European-driven economic thinking and even further afield to the role of a global economy in the future.

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.

OUBEP was born with the added advantage of strengthening the University’s links with both Government and business.

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 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 a classified University Department. And so, OUBEP was born with the added advantage of strengthening the University’s links with both Government and business.

Both the Careers Service and Oxford Centre for Management Studies 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 course as part of their top development training programme. This structure has continued to this day and what was a most forward-thinking and innovative plan was finally enshrined in the Statutes of the University.

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The initial course ran for four weeks but over time the length of the course has been reduced and the content altered, although not reduced in its overall reach. Today’s delegates have changed considerably; not longer is a centre for British talent, but an international forum bringing representatives from every continent. No longer is the focus on Britain and its role in the global economy, but rather on the threats and opportunities of the global economy in many different areas.

It is the mix of delegates and speakers that gives OUBEP its flavour. While many changes have occurred since it was launched, the essence of this unique and most valuable experience still remains as the original group of distinguished leaders designed it.

Written by Richard Northcote. Richard is Head of Global Communications and Public Affairs for Bayer MaterialScience. (He attended OUBEP in 2000 and has been course director on three occasions. He is also a member of the OUBEP Steering Committee).