Nimesh Gadhia is studying for an MA in fashion and enterprise
Talent alone won't guarantee success, and even the most enterprising of young tycoons can go wrong in commerce. That's why graduates are learning how to become entrepreneurs. Harriet Swain reports

The most useful lesson the design postgraduate Matthew Harrison has learnt from working with business people is about the way they think.

"It was quite a shock at first," he admits. "When you are studying - particularly for an MA - it's about giving yourself time and freedom to come up with something original. You try very hard to take the pressures of the real world off yourself." By contrast, the business world is "quick and profit-orientated".

His role as a Royal College of Art Helen Hamlyn Research Associate, he says, is a hybrid of these two ways of thinking. He has been working with Thorn Lighting on a project studying how office lighting can help an ageing workforce. He is also independently developing a web and product design company that he hopes will be fully up and running by the time his associateship finishes later this year.

The Chancellor, Gordon Brown, would be proud of him. Brown's desire to foster a more entrepreneurial spirit among British students lay behind the launch in September 2004 of the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship.

The council is now starting out on its mission to increase the number of successful graduate start-ups and the number of students and graduates thinking of setting up their own businesses, and is trying to identify how best to teach entrepreneurship.

This is the culmination of several recent efforts to make students more entrepreneurial, from the Science Enterprise Challenge Fund (set up in 1999 to support entrepreneurship teaching in science and foster links between universities and business) to a National Enterprise Week, launched in 2004, aimed at "inspiring young people to believe in their own entrepreneurial potential".

For a long time, much of this activity focused on undergraduates, while the entrepreneurial potential of postgraduates was relatively overlooked. This began to change in 2002 after a report by Sir Gareth Roberts on science careers suggested that employers found postgraduates were leaving academia unprepared for the workplace. Since then, they too have been encouraged to exercise their business as well as their academic brains.

Not everyone agrees with this approach. Stephen Rowland, professor of higher education at University College London, argues that a PhD should focus on how to contribute to knowledge rather than on how to make students employable. He suggests that few skills are transferable, most are best learnt in the right context, and that if employers want particular skills, they are in the best position to teach them. "Universities should prepare students for life, but not all life," he says.

Janet Metcalfe, the director of the UK GRAD Programme, which is funded by the UK research councils to help develop personal transferable skills as part of postgraduate training, says this view is outdated. About half of research postgraduates now leave academia as soon as they graduate, and they need to be able to function well outside the university. "Even in the academic community there is much more acknowledgement that academics are not just researchers and teachers, but also need to know about knowledge transfer and other skills," she says.

That still leaves the question of whether students should be learning how to be entrepreneurs (prepared to set up on their own) or how to be enterprising - able to think creatively in a business setting. This is still being debated by educators.

Opinions also differ about how these skills should best be delivered: embedded in the course; as a separate course; as a separate module within a course; or as an extracurricular activity that crosses disciplines. These differences are reflected in what's on offer.

Many university business schools now have specific courses related to enterprise. Sheffield University has launched a new MBA in new venture planning, in which students have to plan a real venture, including developing, marketing and making financial forecasts. At the end of the course they will face a panel of banks, business angels and venture capitalists who will assess their final business plans.

At De Montfort University, a new MSc in international business and entrepreneurship starts next September. This will include modules on both the theory and practice of running an enterprise, and students will have the chance to develop a business idea into a solid business plan for their dissertation.

Abertay University has also started a new postgraduate diploma in enterprise creation, based on its PGDip in entrepreneurship that has been running since 2000. The diploma focuses more on the practical rather than the academic needs of enterprise creation.

Liverpool University, too, has a new MBA in entre-preneurship, which aims to offer not only an academic qualification but the chance to start up a business venture, with access to investment capital and contact with business leaders.

Then there are those courses run outside business schools that include modules on enterprise. Westminster University now offers MAs in fashion design and enterprise, fashion merchandise management, fashion business management, media business management and music business management.

Bristol University offers an MSc in healthcare enterprise, which is designed to provide insights into how discoveries and inventions can be commercially exploited. Newcastle University offers a module in enterprise that students can choose to include in various courses. And the London Science Enterprise Centre, Simfonec, which covers Kings College London, City University, the Royal Veterinary College and Queen Mary has just created an e-learning module that will be available for students at City from September, and in certain subjects at the other universities.

Science enterprise centres such as Simfonec, which gives workshops on presentation skills and protecting intellectual property and offers mentoring, have been key movers in providing enterprise teaching for postgraduates outside the curriculum.

Other organisations are doing their bit; UK Grad runs a course for the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council on getting physicists to be more entrepreneurial, while the Young Entrepreneurs Scheme is an annual competition pitting bioscience postgraduates against each other in the effort to prepare winning business plans for imaginary biotech start-up companies.

The National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship itself runs a Flying Start Programme, which supports undergraduates and postgraduates interested in starting up their own business, including helping to find funding.

Luke Pittaway, the director of the enterprise and regional development unit at Sheffield University Management School, says the programme is aiming to get at the students before they find themselves tied down by children and mortgages. Many wait to start up a business until they have more experience, but by then domestic commitments often make it harder to take a risk.

Pittaway says the council doesn't aim to turn students into young Richard Bransons. Instead, much of its work will concentrate on promoting a generally entrepreneurial attitude. "Jobs for life aren't there any more," he says. "At some point in our lives, most of us are going to be in some kind of self-employment or may need to act in an enterprising way in our jobs to cope with change."

This is something that Harrison, who plans to set up on his own once his contract with Thorn finishes, has taken on board. He says he still thinks of himself as a creative person first and an entrepreneur second - he gets more excited about making something than making money. But when he sees his contemporaries beginning their careers in dogsbody roles in large companies, he can appreciate the benefits of an entrepreneurial outlook.

'The fashion industry has become very corporate; you have to be entrepreneurial'

Plum jobs working for River Island and Ozwald Boateng after graduating from Westminster University in fashion design were not enough for Nimesh Gadhia. He was eager to start up his own fashion label, but he knew that small design companies found dealing with the large fabric manufacturers a challenge.

For Gadhia, the answer was to try to get an insight into the complex, detailed process of starting a business in the fashion industry by enrolling on Westminster's MA in fashion and enterprise. The many successful entrepreneurs invited to speak to students on the course have proved highly stimulating, although perhaps not in the way he expected.

"Everyone who has come in and told us about their businesses has almost put me off," he says. "It's so difficult, and it involves so much work."

Nevertheless, he appreciates the first-hand advice and valuable contacts, not only from among the speakers but also from the other students, who come from all over the world. At the same time, the design side of the degree has boosted his confidence in his own creative skills.

"The good thing about this course is that you have the freedom to really push what you want to do," he says. "If you don't get it right, you aren't going to lose your job. You have the freedom without the pressure."

The course offers a "major" in design and "minor" in new media for fashion, which teaches students about how to use the internet to promote their work. Students learn about royalties, finance, relevant international legal issues, contractual agreements, public relations and production and how to draw up a workable business plan.

"The whole fashion industry has become really corporate," Gadhia says. "If you want to do something on your own you have to be entrepreneurial, otherwise you aren't going to get noticed."