Focus on Business Studies: Getting down to business

Business=boring? Wrong. Britain's most popular course throws in vital work experience plus the chance of an adventure holiday.
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The long lists of business studies courses which still have vacancies are not just an encouragement to prospective students to consider an area which is not often taught at A-level. They are also an indication of just how rapidly the subject has expanded over the last 10 years or so - to become the most popular in higher education.

There are currently more than 150,000 undergraduates enrolled on business and management courses, down slightly on 1997/8 but still part of a continuing trend towards studying vocational subjects in higher education. Business studies is a popular option with young people taking GNVQs in business studies at advanced level, and many business courses at university level are attractive to students who have taken other GNVQs at school or college between the ages of 16 to 18.

The vacancy lists are to some extent misleading, though. Most of the four-year BA in business studies courses in the new universities - which typically demand 18 or 19 A-level points - are now full. But there are business options on modular courses, particularly if candidates have the A-levels to combine with science or engineering.

The Association of Business Schools, which represents the UK's 100 business schools, 97 of which offer undergraduates degree courses, suggests several reasons for the subject's popularity. A recent survey by the Institute for Employment Studies showed that one in three graduates would like to be self-employed or set up their own business later in their careers. However, many of the graduates they surveyed lacked the business skills they needed to make their innovative ambitions a reality. In particular they lacked basic business skills such as accounting, book-keeping, product pricing, selling and business planning, that they would need if they hope to launch a business that succeeds rather than one of the many which fail.

These skills form an integral part of business studies degrees. In addition a number of business schools are introducing modules and specialist courses in entrepreneurship and business creation that are tailor-made for the student who is determined to set up on his or her own when they graduate.

The other advantage offered by many business studies degrees, the ABS suggests, is work experience. Students across the board are increasingly coming to recognise that this may be one of the surest route to obtaining a good job after graduation. Increasing numbers are looking for courses which include work placements, knowing that when job-hunting is for real in three or four years time, the communication skills, business awareness, computer literacy and problem-solving to which they have been introduced as part of their course and have honed in a real work placement, will look very good on their CVs. Whether this reasoning is sound or not, the record of business studies graduates in gaining employment in the six months after graduation is impressive. The proportion increased from 56 per cent to 67 per cent between 1995 and 1997.

The close association between work experience and future high level employment is illustrated by the success of students who win recognition in the ABS's annual Award for Business and Management Studies scheme which requires them to write about the importance of their work placement to their overall development. This year's winners included Christoph Hohman, who studied for a BSc at Bath's School of Management and was selected from amongst 700 applicants for a six-month placement in New Zealand; Ian Hallett, who did his BSc in management science at Canterbury Business School and turned a 15-month placement with Arthur Andersen into a permanent job; and Julianne Cox, who studied for a BSc in business and marketing management at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of higher education and took on a year's placement at Ransom Publishing, which also turned into a full-time appointment.

The non-classroom component of business courses may not be purely work based though. The European Business School, which is an international independent college in London offering undergraduate degree courses validated by the Open University, puts its first year students through 24 hours of team-building exercises which include challenges like building a raft to cross a swimming pool, building a crane which will lift a container of water, and rescuing a casualty and bringing them safely home across an obstacle course. The course aims to develop the students' analytical abilities, strategic thinking, interaction and teamwork and attitude. EBS courses involve a significant language element and include work experience in several different countries.

And the skills obtained by business students outside the classroom can be put to surprising uses once they move into the real world. Elwin Geil, who began organising discos in the basement of the European Business School during his first year there is now a managing partner in Holland's biggest leisure firm. He helps run a string of nightclub venues and a thriving export business in "electronic cloakroom" equipment. His idea for "drink stock-market" bars, where customers influence and monitor the prices of their drinks in response to market forces, has been franchised around the world.

David Miles, Dean of the Faculty of Business at Kingston University, is convinced that a business studies degree course is an excellent introduction to a range of careers in industry and commerce, and is particularly valuable if it includes a sandwich element. "Courses have become much more rigorous in recent years, since the introduction of sophisticated new technology," he says. "We are turning out young business professionals rather than managers and we expect them to graduate with well-founded personal business skills."

Increasingly, he says, employers are using work placements to assess the suitability of future employees. And work experience also gives undergraduates the chance to change the direction of their course if they don't like what they experience. "It gives both parties the opportunity to have a look at each other," David Miles says. "And we find employers stay on our books and take students every year. And for the students there is the advantage of having something concrete to put on their CV when they come to look for their first job."