Earlier this month, 46 would-be Alan Sugars attended an intensive, four-day course on entrepreneurship hosted by Cass Business School. Despite the £2,000 fee – with generous scholarships given to those Cass considered to have a "killer idea" – course leader Professor Julie Logan says that demand for places was so great that the event is likely to be repeated in December.
"You can learn a certain amount about going it alone from business books and you can top up that knowledge by watching all the television shows on the same subject," says Logan.
"But, when it comes to taking a leap into the unknown with your own new product, nothing can replace the opportunity to chew the fat with people who really understand entrepreneurship from the inside and who may be in a position to help you get started."
While business education was once dominated by big-hitting qualifications – MBAs, BScs and the plethora of related degrees, diplomas and certificates that can help propel you to the top – the market has expanded out of all recognition. Be it getting to grips with globalisation, learning to cope with a takeover or simply understanding how ITF or HR legislation can affect your job, there are business courses to suit every interest and pocket.
By sheer weight of numbers, employers continue to dominate the business education market, many of them opting for bespoke courses tailored to their own firms or sectors. But in economically squeezed Britain, paying for some or all of your own learning to boost your earning power or aid an entire career switch has never been so popular.
Although going on a course might once have been a perk of the job, a chance to get out of the office and schmooze with old friends and colleagues over a leisurely week of workshops held in a posh hotel, today's business student expects quick results.
"Whether you're searching for better presentation and communication skills for your next role or you need to get to grips with challenging colleagues in your current one, our sessions involve active participation and intense concentration, rather than death by PowerPoint," says Craig Hurring, head of marketing at BPP Professional Development. "Our courses are all about changing the way people think and act, not talking at them from a podium all day and giving them reams of dull reading material to take home afterwards.
"Many students tell us that they have been able to make an impact at work, or at a crucial job interview, literally the day after one of our short courses. We take this as a great compliment," he adds.
Although there is little doubt that a well-taught three-, two- or one-year postgraduate business qualification can help secure better paid, more senior roles for the future, fewer of us can afford this luxury.
For organisations that have pared staff development costs to the bone and for job-seekers with limited amounts of savings at their disposal, the short, sharp approach can be highly effective. "People want more course for their money and they want it delivered in a shorter time," says Dr Kevan Williams, a director of Norwich Business School, which will soon launch a series of short courses on topics such as carbon management and project-handling. "Two of our key local markets are unemployed professionals and small and medium enterprises looking to reinforce and refresh their existing knowledge. Neither wants to be forced to travel down to London for the privilege," he says.
Williams believes past business courses tended to be seen as quick fixes for companies lacking a particular management skill. Today's emphasis, he says, is "far more about building your own long-term career prospects and taking personal responsibility for how much you know."
BPP currently offers a menu of more than 800 short courses on a wide range of business topics; among them, running more effective meetings and managing cross-cultural diversity. In recognition of today's more time-pressed business environment, the majority of them last no more than two days.
"While our traditional expertise has been in providing high-quality technical education for fields such as accountancy and the law, nobody can afford simply to be a bean counter anymore, however clever they are," says Hurring. "All senior people need to possess broad commercial acumen nowadays, particularly during a period of downsizing. The fastest and most cost-efficient way to achieve this knowledge is to invest in top-level business education at an institution with a strong track record."
For self-funders in particular, going back to school in order to raise your CV to the next level can be invaluable. To Catherine Kouguem, who recently studied for a diploma in management at Birkbeck, the decision to self-fund was inevitable. "I am from Cameroon and when I looked for a job here I was advised that I would need to do a UK qualification," she says. "Having a background in finance and accounting, I opted for a fast-track management course and was delighted to find out that studying at Birkbeck would give me a prestigious qualification from the University of London."
Although Kouguem, who until then had only studied in French and hadn't been in a classroom for 10 years, found studying in a foreign country and in a different language an enormous challenge, she is now doing her professional accountancy qualifications. "Birkbeck helped me with financial support as I didn't have a job and boosted my career at a very difficult time in my life," she says.
While the jury is out on whether a business course can turn a student from an average manager into an Anita Roddick or Alan Sugar, Williams believes the new emphasis on active participation, rather than passive "chalk and talk" augurs well for the health of the market.
"You need to know why you are doing a particular course and what, specifically, you hope you will get out of it. If you have both those things, plus top-quality teachers with relevant business experience, you can achieve an awful lot in a surprisingly short space of time."
'I wanted a course that wouldn't bog me down in academia'
Hester Stuart-Menteth is group marketing director at the Eton Collection. She studied for a Masters in strategic marketing at the Cranfield School of Management.
"I had been in a marketing role at Tottenham Hotspur Football Club for five years, and realised I would never be able to take on a more strategic role without studying marketing in more detail.
I quit my job and self-funded the £12,500 course fee. I chose Cranfield after looking for a course that was practical, rather than theoretical, and which would inspire me without bogging me down in academia.
It was incredibly hard work – the average day didn't finish until 10pm – but the tutor was great and the course focused on real-life business case studies and situations I could relate to.
I filled in the gaps in my knowledge about long-term marketing planning and I knew I'd at last be able to handle a truly strategic role.
I came out of it with a head full of ideas and the confidence and knowledge to go for my current role."