Two years ago Rahul Kulkarni was spending a week on a large container ship, preparing to take over as master from an experienced South African captain. Though he had gained his master's certificate five years before, this was to be his first command. "What I hadn't expected," he says, "was that the captain would just walk off the ship at Manzanillo, leaving me to take it through the Panama crossing." Around the table at the Greenwich Maritime Institute there is a burst of laughter from his fellow students on the MBA in Maritime Management course, now one term into its second year. All the students are experienced mariners who can empathise only too readily with the awesome responsibility that faced Kulkarni as he faced Panama on his own. "I took one look at this huge ship and said to myself, hell, I'm in charge now. And then - well, I just got on with it."
Kulkarni was working for the British side of Maersk, the shipowners, based in Canary Wharf. He did well to get his first command at 31 but like many seafarers he then faced a dilemma: where next? A well established career in merchant shipping is from master to pilot but Kulkarni also wanted the ability to switch careers, and the new specialist MBA at Greenwich seemed a sensible option. "We think it fills a gap in the market," says Professor Sarah Palmer, the course director. "There's certainly nothing like it in Britain."
Palmer's own speciality is maritime history. Fittingly, her office is just round the corner from a famous 19th century clipper, now a museum. The Cutty Sark was designed for the tea trade, but was quickly forced to switch to wool by the opening of the Suez Canal, which was designed for steam, not sail. Similarly, today's maritime industry has to respond fast to changing world prices, evolving regulations and global satellite technology.
The MBA course, run jointly with Greenwich Business School, arose out of meetings Palmer had with the Chamber of Shipping, the trade association for British ship owners and ship managers. Managing a ship or a shipyard is like running a medium-sized business. The Armed Forces have been sending officers on MBA courses for some years.
"The City maritime sector said they needed something that would give shipping personnel the opportunity to acquire qualifications and skills applicable to the sector," Palmer says. "At Greenwich we were already offering MAs in maritime history and policy, so it was a logical step."
The one-year, full-time course costs £9,276 (£12,250 for overseas students) and can also be taken part-time over two years for the same price. It combines the usual MBA basics - finance, marketing, strategy, human relations - with the economics of international shipping, public shipping law and maritime policy. In detail the students look at logistics operations and marketing, global pipeline management, vessel size and rotation, stowage and planning, strategic agreements, vessel sharing and solo charter agreements.
At the end of the year they submit a 12,000-word dissertation based on original research or a consultancy project. Mark Bambury, 31, is writing his on tonnage tax. "It's a type of corporation tax that came into being in 2000 and applies to strategic operations based in Britain," he says. "It's a tax concession, but you need large vessels to make the system work."
His varied experience is typical of many seafarers. "I had my own business repairing cars, did some banana planting in Australia, some warehouse management. Then I did a foundation course and a naval architecture degree at Strathclyde. I was a naval architect, designing ships. Recently I was working at Lloyd's Register, looking after the surveillance teams for large crew and carrier vessels, checking repair hotspots and structural integrity.
"This MBA seemed like a step up. I've been talking about where I want to go with my career and looking at a plan for shipyard management. British shipyards are doing well at the moment."
A bonus for the students is to spend their year in a corner of what has been described as "the great baroque masterpiece of English architecture", now a World Heritage Site. Christopher Wren designed the riverside complex at the end of the 17th century as a naval hospital. It became the Royal Naval College in 1873, and since 1998 has housed the University of Greenwich.
Students come from all over the world and from a mixture of backgrounds. The course is too new to be accredited by the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the intake is small, though the students say they have gained a lot simply by mixing with the other Greenwich MBA students, who number around 140.
"We start the year with a creative thinking week," says Palmer. "Greenwich has its own problem, which is how to encourage tourists in central London to take the river trip here. I asked this group to devise a heritage marketing plan for the site as a whole to an international audience. They came up with a range of ideas - marketing in international magazines, airline magazines. Even a beerfest."
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