A term at sea aboard a cruise liner could be the perfect finishing school for business course students. By Steve McCormack

The clever play on words was clearly irresistible. Picture the scene when the wheeze was hatched. "Let's hire a luxury liner and fill it with rich university students as we cruise around the world," someone suggested as a tray of gin and tonics arrived.

"Nice idea," came the unconvinced, reply. "But how would we market it?"

"The Scholar Ship," answered the first, with a smirk, knowing the allure of a snappy copy line. And so the project was born.

The real genesis may have been different but sometime next year, a Royal Caribbean Cruises ship will slip out of Athens harbour, setting sail for a 16-week trip round the world. Aboard will be hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, signed up for a floating educational programme and a series of onshore events.

The aim is to give the students a "distinctive trans-national learning" experience that will enhance their employability, in a global business environment that increasingly needs people who can operate across cultural, political and linguistic boundaries.

It's the brainchild of Dr Joe Olander, an American academic who's held a string of senior positions in the USA, Australia and China.

"The concept of spending a semester at sea is long established in the States," he explains. "But I wanted to have something genuinely trans-national."

Over the last couple of years, Olander has been working his way through his contacts book to persuade academic institutions to, literally, come on board.

To date, seven have been signed up as "academic stewards" for the project. They are the University of California, Berkeley, Macquarie University in Sydney, Al Akhawayn University in Morocco, Beijing Foreign Studies University, Peking University, Tecnológico de Monterrey in Mexico and the University of Ghana.

These institutions will take overall responsibility for the academic content of the programme and provide most of the teaching staff.

Macquarie University will accredit the qualifications awarded. However, for undergraduates, the idea is that they will secure agreement from their "base" universities, before they set sail, for the on-board credits to count towards the academic programme being followed back home.

This factor may, though, present more of an obstacle to recruitment for the Scholar Ship in some countries, for example the UK, than in others. "In the US, the concept of portability of qualifications is well-established," explains John Larkin, the project's marketing consultant in the UK, "but that is only beginning to happen in the UK."

For this reason, Larkin is concentrating his efforts at the moment on trying to generate interest among British-based postgraduates, who, he feels, may see the ship experience and resultant qualification as an end in itself.

However, his task of drumming up enthusiasm in the British Isles in general is also being hampered by the absence, so far, of any UK university on the organising team, which has contributed to the recent decision to put back the inaugural cruise by six months, from January next year to September.

The academic content has clearly been well thought through. Assuming the target of between 550 and 700 students is reached, the plan is to create a mini on-board university, divided into eight themed "learning circles," which will resemble academic departments, with teachers and students working together around an academic area. Examples of the Scholar Ship's learning circle themes include International Business and Communication; Global Cultures and Social Change, and Sustainable Development.

Each student will be a member of one circle, taking the majority of their courses in the corresponding area of study, as well as some core courses common to all participants, and an elective from another circle.

Throughout, there will be a dominant ongoing theme of intercultural leadership and communication, underlining what Olander hopes will be a rich mix of students and teachers afloat.

In fact, this is seen as an attraction by the universities who'll be providing the teachers as well. Professor Driss Ouaouicha, the Scholar Ship's main point of contact at Al Akhawayn University, views the project as a unique career development opportunity for his lecturing staff.

"Similar to students, professors must adapt to the multicultural environment. They'll be teaching students of different nationalities, from a wide range of backgrounds, perspectives and learning styles," he explains.

A cruise wouldn't be a cruise, though, without an extensive programme of shore-based visits. And with planned ports of call including the likes of Montivideo, Cape Town and Freemantle, Australia, there's no shortage economic, social and geographical raw material to work with.

And work will, for much of the time, remain the operative word, since the Scholar Ship is committed to "experiential learning" utilising the extensive education opportunities in every port.

Students will be expected to participate in academic "field-programmes" in three out of the six main week-long stopovers in port. These programmes will last five days, giving students at least two free days in every port for the less intellectual, maybe even hedonistic, activities.

Examples of field programmes envisaged include: visits to courts, political party offices, schools and hospitals; visits to rural villages and talks with NGOs; and studies of new and traditional markets and religious centres.

To prepare students for this work at each port, experts will arrive on the ship for the preceding sea passage, to conduct introductory lectures.

None of this comes cheap, of course, and student participants will need deep pockets to walk up the gang plank and join the cruise in Athens. The cost is $19,500 (£10,360) for 16 weeks, sharing a two-person cabin.

Olander concedes this will limit the social mix of those on the inaugural cruise. But after the first cruise, he plans to set up scholarships to help less well off students take part.

And, for the first cruise, each of the partner universities will have five free places (one postgraduate and four undergraduate) to allocate to students.

The itinerary

Depart from Pireaus (Athens), and sail through the Mediterranean and the Gibraltar Strait for eight days to Casablanca on the Moroccan coast, where the ship stays for a week. Then it's south, through the Atlantic for 12 days to the facing ports of Buenos Aires, Argentina and Montevideo, Uruguay, for another week-long stop. Ten days later, having sailed east, the ships arrives in Cape Town for a week, before the 12-day Indian Ocean crossing to Fremantle (Perth) in Western Australia, where there's an eight-day stopover. Singapore is reached after another six days at sea, and then Cochin, near the southern tip of India after a five-day voyage, with a week in each port. Then, 15 days later, having passed through the Suez Canal and called in at Limassol, Cyprus, for a couple of days, the ship steams back into Pireaus.

More details at www.TheScholarShip.com