A hotbed of Scottish industry

Student involvement with local business entrepreneurs sets the Aberdeen Business School MBA apart from its competitors
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The Independent Online

Four students were sitting round the table talking fish farming. They weren't spare-time anglers – their brainstorming session was part of their MBA programme, and they were helping one of their colleagues to put together a business plan for a fish-processing plant. At the end of the unit, they made their pitch to a panel consisting of a local head of business banking, a fund manager and an accountant, aided by a well-thought-out video on how the plant would work – and they offered a tasty fish-food buffet to go with it.

That session is typical of the MBA programme at Aberdeen Business School, located at Robert Gordon University, whose vice-chancellor unashamedly proclaims its mission to be "the best vocational university in the UK". The MBA programme, started 10 years ago, puts very strong emphasis on vocational study. The one-year full-time programme has a cohort of 25, the part-time intake is around 35. Each year, a significant proportion of those who opt for the entrepreneurship module, Launching New Ventures, set up their own businesses after finishing the programme.

Backing for these students comes from the school's business incubator, part of the university's Centre for Entrepreneurship and SMEs. The unit was started in September 1999, and is managed by Colin Graham, who has brought a practical business background with ICI and a training consultancy to the venture. "There is a lot of involvement with the business community," says Graham. "Robert Gordon wants to be a key contributor to the debate on Aberdeen's future – a player in the broader community and the city." The business school is part of the university's faculty of management, which moved into a £19m Sir Norman Foster-designed building in 1998. The faculty boasts more than 1,000 computers – very fitting for students whose working lives are set to be dominated by new technology.

Some students come to the MBA programme with a business idea already in mind. "Part of the support we give is to sift through these ideas," says Hector Douglas, head of the business school. Staff review the ideas and help students define them, and then bring in outside business people to advise – one of the business school's and the programme's most important resources.

Students have real contact with the business world. "We certainly encourage students to make these contacts," says Colin Graham. "The MBA is supposed to be a challenge." Students go out on business placements (the School has its own placement unit), and Hector Douglas lays great emphasis on the help given to the individual student. "Encouraging people to start their own businesses and giving them the tools and support is obviously very important," he says.

But what difference does an MBA really make? Quite a lot, says Peter Henderson, who set up his own software business, Pisys, in 1988, when he was a 23-year-old computer programmer; he expects to complete his MBA thesis next spring. The thesis looks at the part structure plays in strategic thinking. "Since I started the MBA, I've introduced structures within the business that didn't exist before," Henderson says. As the business has grown, his own role has become less hands-on and more strategic. "I needed to look at the way the business was going, look beyond the day-to-day operation."

Pisys now employs 33 people, and has set up an education division to market its flagship pupil performance monitoring system. This system tracks pupils from nursery to university, offering a package easily accessible to teacher and student alike. Within a year of its introduction, 25 per cent of Scottish secondary schools were using the system, which can encompass attendance reports and school audit. Other Pisys products include a package which allows offshore companies to track and inspect underwater installations.

Henderson has also set up a media division to offer corporate branding and Web development. "The MBA has been really beneficial," he says. "It's also a great opportunity for meeting people in similar positions, and for brainstorming new ideas."

The Robert Gordon MBA offers core modules in corporate financial management, human resources management, marketing decisions, operations management, business economics and knowledge management – very similar to many of its competitors. The biggest difference comes with the constant involvement of local business people with the students. "Entrepreneurs come into the classes from real businesses," explains Colin Graham. "It's very practical teaching." Students learn from these "real world" lecturers how to plan a business, and, most importantly, how to raise finance. "The Business School classes give them the chance to network with local heads of business banking."

A large number of Robert Gordon's MBA students already work for other people, and a high proportion choose to study part-time, to advance their career prospects. "It's a pretty intensive course," says Peter Henderson, who reckons he spends four nights a week on the programme, plus weekends when necessary.

Fees (£11,000 for full-time students, £8,250 for the two-year part-time programme) are often paid by employers. Up to a quarter of the full-time cohort are sponsored, and almost 50 per cent of the part-timers are. Just under a third come from the engineering industry, with offshore companies providing 35 to 40 per cent of the part-time students and there is an elective in offshore management, partly taught by practitioners in the industry. Not for nothing does Robert Gordon style itself 'the energy university'.

This November sees a one-day programme, Start-Up 2001, designed for Robert Gordon graduates, including MBAs, to meet local entrepreneurs and hear more about business start-up. Three quarters of the entrepreneurs are themselves RGU graduates, and there will be panel sessions on how to start up a business, how to raise finance, and other relevant topics. Support is again the keynote. "It's business school policy to support our alumni," says Colin Graham, "and if we help them in terms of contacts and starting a business, they can come back as advisers."