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By Winston Featherly-Bean
Forget about the Tabs, Oxford is now taking on Cambridge, Massachusetts. Not content with schooling 26 British prime ministers, Oxford is set to mimic Harvard in launching a £75 million finishing school for future world leaders.
In what educational experts see as a major coup for the University, over the holiday Oxford successfully persuaded Russian-born oligarch Leonard Blavatnik to fund the new school after more than two years of negotiations.
The first of its kind in the UK, the school has been dubbed by Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton “a new way for Oxford to contribute to the world”.
Administrators hope the Blavatnik School of Government will open as early as 2012 to offer students a one-year master’s degree. Though based on the model of Harvard’s famous Kennedy School of Government, the Oxford institution will be smaller. While Harvard teaches over 1,000 students, Oxford’s school will take just 120.
The school was almost strangled at birth after a series of disagreements led senior dons to stage a last-minute revolt against several key parts of the agreement between Blavatnik, one of four entrepreneurs who control Russian gas giant TNK-BP, and the University.
In draft regulations to govern the new school, published at the end of June, the University fleshed out what some dons saw as a pro-free market bias in the stated aims of the school. The document said the school would facilitate “research and teaching [of] the principles of the free market, and of democratic and accountable government…[and] the right of citizens to work and enjoy the fruits of their labour”.
After a week of frenzied meetings between members of the politics department and Goodman, the regulations were altered and a clause to protect academic freedom was inserted, so tutors feel they are not constrained by an institutional ideology.
Dons were also reassured that, although the regulations say Blavatnik would be able to veto the appointment of a Dean of the school, he would have to go to court to exercise this right.
Not all critics have been placated however, Peter Oppenheimer, an expert in Russian economic policy from Christ Church, maintains that “it is unacceptable on any basis that the foundation should have any say whatsoever in appointing the Dean”.
Blavatnik’s spokesman told a reporter that his future involvement with the school had yet to be finalised, but clarified: “There is no suggestion that he would be involved in the day-to-day running of the school.”
The spokesman added that Blavatnik’s background growing up in the former Soviet Union has influenced his desire to foster good governance.
“He was discriminated against and he then left and became a US citizen, so he knows first hand the power of democracy and human rights that he was denied. He feels very strongly about this.
The school will occupy a 6.3 km2 plot on the former Radcliffe Hospital site on Woodstock Road, though an architect has yet to be appointed.
The school proposals were officially launched in a ceremony last month attended by Lord Mandelson and Bill Clinton sent a video message of congratulation.
What will the school be like?
ALTHOUGH detailed course proposals for the school have yet to be approved by the University, it is understood that the one-year master’s degree it will offer will place a particular focus on developing skills useful for graduates in government and private sector positions.
The released details of its course so far indicate that they will be “highly practical” and multi-disciplinary, drawing on areas such as law, public health, finance and energy policy. The course will also offer training in negotiation, budgeting and strategic communication.
While fees for Oxford’s students have yet to be confirmed, tuition fees for the Masters in Public Policy at Harvard are approximately £25,000 per year.
Prominent alumni of the Kennedy School include United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, World Bank President Robert Zoellick and Pete Rouse, the newly appointed White House Chief of Staff.
The man behind the school
Russian-born billionaire Leonard Blavatnik made his fortune during then President Boris Yeltsin’s privatisation of Russia’s state industries, and currently sits at 31st place on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans.
After completing a degree at the University of Moscow, Blavatnik he left the Soviet Union in 1978, travelling to the United States to continue his studies at Columbia and Harvard Business School.
With another Russian businessman, Victor Vekselberg, Blavatnik formed the Renova group, and purchased shares in TNK, a gas company, and Suas, an aluminium group. TNK is now owned by Blavatnik, Veklesberg and a third Russian oligarch, Mikhail Friedman.
One of Blavatnik’s companies, LyondellBasell, has recently faced scrutiny after filing for bankruptcy in 2009. Blavatnik created the company LyondellBasell by merging Basell Polyolefins and Lyondell Chemical Company to create what was at the time the world’s third-largest chemical company. It was reported earlier this year that the company may face a U.S. bribery probe in relation to a payment linked to a project in Kazakhstan, according to Bloomberg.
Now in his fifties, Blavatnik owns stakes in commodities such as oil and gas, and is also involved in media companies, owning several, including Warner Music Group. He is now based in London, and owns a £40m house for which he is reported to have outbid Roman Abramovich.