'They are a crucial part of the innovation agenda': How business schools benefit the economy

When The Cornerhouse cinema and retail complex needed expert help with using the internet for marketing, it turned to MBA students at its local business school. The recommendations made by the five students from Nottingham Business School have led The Cornerhouse marketing team to develop mobile phone applications to let customers book tickets online and access information on businesses in the complex.

"Real world" consultancy projects, such as this one at Nottingham, which forms an integral part of an MBA course, are among a number of ways in which business schools contribute to their local economies. A recent study carried out for the Association of Business Schools (ABS) explored the positive financial impact that business schools make to their surrounding towns, cities and the wider region. It looked in depth at four schools – in London, Cardiff, Nottingham and Aberdeen – and came to the conclusion that the overall contribution to the UK's economy from the more than 100 schools in the country is around £7.5 billion.

Dr Andy Cooke from Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, co-author of the report, explains: "There are inevitable benefits as students bring in money through tuition fees and spending to the area. But business schools also provide graduates for the local job market, improve the local skills base by running professional courses and, as we have seen at The Cornerhouse, help boost the productivity of local businesses by providing consultancy."

Encouraging entrepreneurial activity is another important role that business schools play. "They are a crucial part of the innovation agenda that drives the economy," explains Jonathan Slack, chief executive of the Association of Business Schools. "Many UK schools include incubator units designed to nurture businesses. These offer physical space, support and, in some cases, venture capital for staff and students to help them test out new ideas and launch new companies."

The Hive initiative at Nottingham Trent University provides a setting in which early stage businesses can germinate their ideas and work towards a viable business plan. Based on campus, the centre is open to all students and graduates, as well as local people, with a robust proposal. "Since its launch 10 years ago, 112 start-up businesses have emerged, ranging from software to horticulture, generating almost 200 jobs for the local economy," says Chris Hall, The Hive's business manager.

The evolution of specialist MBAs tailored to the needs of a key industry or sector is another way in which business schools can make a significant contribution to the economic health of a region. Aberdeen Business School's oil and gas management MBA is a prime example. "Our course has been running for three years," says MBA director, Allan Scott. "Until that point, you couldn't study for an MBA with this specialist focus. Given the size and dominance of the North Sea energy industry centred on Aberdeen, this meant there was a real gap in local provision. Its objective is to enhance the skills and knowledge of experienced managers within the industry and 55 per cent of the curriculum is built around oil and gas."

One issue this MBA helps to address is how Aberdeen can sustain itself as a centre for excellence in oil and gas in the face of declining North Sea output. "One way of tackling that is through offering education. This is the conduit that allows companies working in the field all over the world to engage with a university such as ours," explains Scott.

Reflecting the fact that offshore oil and gas extraction is a challenging business, the Aberdeen oil and gas management MBA offers a choice of electives that include health, safety and risk in an organisational context. A number of the modules are delivered by industry experts, highlighting the strength of the school's relationship with business. Work by faculty and students also reflects current commercial realities.

The ABS study points to the fact that Aberdeen adds around £100 million to the Scottish economy. A major way in which it does so is by attracting overseas students, which is particularly evident at postgraduate level. "The oil and gas MBA accounts for around 65 per cent of the MBA population and our MBA students come from more than 70 different countries," explains Scott.

Business and administration courses throughout the country have an equally strong pulling power. The study found that in 2008/9, the value of export earnings generated by the UK's business school sector approached £2 billion. Many working in higher education see that earning potential as being at risk if the Government's proposals on visa and immigration restrictions are enforced. Underlining the success of the UK's business schools in attracting revenue, the report points out that they have been better able to compete than other parts of UK universities.

"Their contribution of almost £8 billion to the overall economy is remarkable in times of recession. This success is threatened, however, by these new Government proposals that would result in a cut in overall numbers," says Slack. "We are warning that the consequences could be bad not only for higher education but also for UK plc. In a tough economic climate, there is a clear need for business schools to prove their value to both the regional and the wider economy. The income that comes from international students allows schools to reinvest so they can maintain their global reputation. Our business schools are well placed to take advantage of the growing international education market. If they are allowed to compete on an equal basis, they will continue to do very well in attracting students from overseas."