In these days of high tuition fees, it is perhaps refreshing to know that there is at least one university in the country that is handing out money to its students instead. The University of Buckingham, and its pioneering BSc business enterprise (BBE) course, aims to give budding entrepreneurs a helping hand with setting up their own businesses.
For one of the units on the two-year course, students have to come up with entrepreneurial ideas and pitch them to the “Buckingham Angels” – a sort of Dragons’ Den-style body that assesses all the applications and decides how much of a start-up grant it can give them to help get their companies off the ground.
The range of start-ups run from the university since the course was launched in 2006 is huge and – in some cases – eye-catching.
For instance, one group set up “Squeaky Green”, which provides sustainable wash kits for festivalgoers, and the students behind the scheme are planning to continue with the company after graduating.
Another student set up “Ecocessories”, which imported its material from Vietnam and sold sustainable wooden mice for PCs and laptops.
And Shamal Patel, aged 24, is one of a group of four students selling fashion products such as bamboo sunglasses and importing the materials to make the glasses from China.
“We just looked it up on the internet and we found that there was a supplier in China who could make these for us,” he explains.
“We decided we wanted to make things for people to wear that were environmentally sustainable and would look cool at the same time.”
The Buckingham Angels, who include representatives of local businesses, as well as of the university, can give a maximum start-up grant of £5,000 for the business suggestions that the students come up with.
“The students put in a bid for the money – sometimes they get less than they’ve bid for but sometimes they can get more, too,” says Nigel Adams, the programme’s director.
They can also be turned down, in which case they can revise their bid, try something new, or join one of the students who have successfully bid for cash under the project.
Tom Bowen, aged 20, was given a £2,500 start-up grant to set up “The Golf Bundle” – vouchers that people can buy to give them eight rounds of golf at any club that has signed up for the project. The proceeds are then split between Tom’s company and the golf clubs.
It has, Tom admits, been more difficult to get off the ground than he had hoped. So far, one club has signed up for the scheme and another nine or 10 are actively considering it.
“Most of them have shown real interest and have said, ‘We’d really like to work with you,’” he says. “I’m trying to sign up as many as possible but the problem comes when they say that they have to take it to their committee. It’s a real challenge to get them to sign the contract.”
Students at Buckingham, the first private university to be established in the UK, enrol for two-year courses and forgo their summer holiday so that they can fit their studies into a shorter timescale, thus reducing the fees – for this course it is £13,000 a year.
Tom is a keen golfer himself, having spent two years on a golf scholarship at an American university before enrolling at Buckingham. “You had to practice between 3pm and 6pm daily, which really took some of the enjoyment out of playing the game,” he says. He is convinced he has now found flaws in the way that many golf clubs are running their affairs. “It’s no wonder some of the golf clubs are losing members,” he says. “The committee structure really puts off change.
“Some people may not want to commit themselves to an annual fee and play all the year round, so the voucher scheme makes sense for them. They also may not want to play at the same club all the time – the voucher would entitle them to play at any club that has signed up for the scheme.”
The £2,500 given to Tom is about the average for the kind of advance made by the Buckingham Angels. The bulk of the money has been spent on designing a website for the business and to pay Tom’s petrol costs for travelling around the golf clubs.
Nigel Adams, who in an earlier incarnation was advising firms in Poland how to prepare for privatisation as the country moved away from Russian domination, is adamant that the programme is the best preparation there could be for teaching the skills necessary to become an entrepreneur.
“This was the first venture-creation programme in the world,” he said. Two other universities – Huddersfield and Coventry, both publicly financed – now run similar programmes.
One of his proudest boasts is that he has not come across a single graduate from the course who is unemployed six months after leaving the university. “Nothing beats the experience of setting up your own business as a preparation for what these students want to do when they leave university,” he says.
“The ideal combination is an idealist with ideas joining forces with another student who may be more practical.”
A few become a bit cocky and leave the university before the end of the course and try to run their business privately. There is, he insists, no way back for them if they fail.
If the businesses make a profit, the money goes back into the pot from which the grants are made – as does any of the start-up money that remains unspent.
Sean Ruane, aged 25, and Matthew Campbell, aged 18, are both in their first year on the course. Students enrol in January and they have to come up with their business plan by May or June. They are planning to design start-up packs for businesses.
It is time-consuming, Sean admits. “I find my time is split nearly 50/50 between my academic studies and preparing for the business. I have to remember not to lose sight of my studies.”
Nigel Adams, too, appreciates that his students have to remember that they are studying for a degree and cannot just spend all their time being budding entrepreneurs. It does, though, he argues, add a sense of enjoyment to the course – and has unearthed some brilliant ideas from among the 98 students who have enrolled for the course since it was established.
This year, women outnumber men in the cohort for the first time – by seven to six. “Most of this year’s BBE students are in their twenties and early thirties and they have either been studying subjects they didn’t like at other universities or have been running their own businesses, working for someone else, or in one case, running her own business, getting married and having three children by the age of 23,” Nigel Adams says. “Now that is real work!”