Ian Clarke. dean of the University of Edinburgh Business School - 23/7/2015
Ian Clarke: dean of the University of Edinburgh Business School. © FT

It is three years since Ian Clarke decided to travel the 100-mile journey north from the University of Newcastle to Edinburgh, to take on the role of dean at the University of Edinburgh Business School.

The decision to move to Scotland’s most prestigious university was made on the clear practical advantages. “I find it [Edinburgh University] very entrepreneurial in terms of vision and speed,” says Prof Clarke.

But more than that, there was a feeling that there was a need — and an opportunity — to make big changes, and build a business school that reflected the calibre and status enjoyed by other departments in the ancient university, such as the medical school or department of humanities.

Located in Edinburgh, one of the UK’s largest financial services centres, the school already held a number of strong cards in its hand. It had a recently refurbished building overlooking George Square in the heart of the university campus. What is more, there was the money to make the changes.

So the biggest concern for Prof Clarke when he arrived was that the business school had “no flavour”, as he puts it. “It was just like all the other business schools. When I took over, I tried to get a sense of what the opportunity was.”

He decided that the answer was to teach leadership across the undergraduate, masters and MBA degree portfolio through a cross-disciplinary approach. This centres around five centres of excellence: accounting; governance and society; financial decision making; resilience; strategic leadership; and service excellence.

“Leadership runs clean through the MBA like a stick of rock,” says the dean, referring to the UK seaside confectionery.

That decision made, there was an even bigger challenge, as although the business school had a lot of very able young scholars, there was a dearth of senior academics. In a fiercely competitive market, Prof Clarke advertised for six new chaired professors.

“I’ve never done as much interviewing or wooing as I have done in the past three years,” he says, but the effort has certainly paid off, with a full complement of professors, attracted from both the UK and overseas. In the UK government’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework — the Ref — the school has increased the percentage of its “world leading” or “internationally excellent” research activity from 50 per cent to 77 per cent as a result.

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This high-profile positioning of the school, together with Edinburgh University’s global brand, has meant that Prof Clarke has been able to sign partnership agreements for research and student exchanges with some big-hitting business schools around the world, to replace a mish-mash of loose connections. The new partners include the Guanghua school at Peking University, IIM Ahmedabad in In India, Copenhagen Business School in Denmark and the Australian National University.

This year the school will be looking for a partner in South America, followed by one in North America. Once the network is in place, Prof Clarke believes there will be big opportunities to build on the relationships through research and programmes.

His challenge for this year, he says, is to investigate what could be done with online learning, although he acknowledges that this is one area where the school is lagging.

For Prof Clarke there will be potential endorsement of his strategy in 2016, when the school is set to be reaccredited by Equis, the European accreditation body. Just as he took up the dean’s role at Edinburgh three years ago, the school was reaccredited for three years. Next year, Prof Clarke is keeping his fingers crossed that it will receive the maximum five-year stamp of approval.

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