Georgia Rakusen, 24, and Beckie Darlington, 27, used to be competitors. Two freelancers managing cultural events in Newcastle, they met pitching for the same clients. It was only after winning scholarships on an entrepreneurship course at Teesside University that they were able to join forces and form their new company, Haus Projects. One year on, they are working with some of the biggest arts organisations in the North-east.
"Setting up a company can seem like a very daunting business if you're on your own without a support network, but they [the university] gave us the push we needed," says Darlington. "The fellowship is for people who have a great idea, but aren't sure how to take it to the next stage."
Rakusen and Darlington have helped to manage the North-east's regional design festival and similarly high-profile arts projects abroad, but they are not stereotypical entrepreneurs. Both graduates of English literature, neither received any formal business training before they began freelancing. It was simply the strength of their business idea that won them a place on Teesside's DigitalCity fellowship programme that offers three- or six-month training placements to help get the best digital business ideas off the ground.
The DigitalCity programme is one example of how postgraduate entrepreneurship courses are helping to create jobs in the midst of the economic downturn. DigitalCity now claims to be starting one new business a week, and is just one part of Teesside's business incubation centre on campus. The university has helped 180 graduate companies launch since 2001, creating more than 271 new jobs.
According to Rakusen, a downturn can be an excellent time for start-ups. "Being a small company, you can really define your niche when bigger companies may be going down," she says, "It's all about being innovative and different. Businesses are looking to new technologies to survive the recession and get ahead of the game."
New figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) suggest that entrepreneurship courses are booming at British universities. The number of postgraduate students taking specialist entrepreneurship programmes rose 22 per cent between 2007/08 and 2008/09, with 10 new courses opening. Although the length, price and content of these courses varies hugely, MBA programmes have seen the biggest increase, with student numbers rising by 60 per cent.
"There's no question about it – entrepreneurship courses are attracting greater interest," says Professor Andrew Burke, the director of graduate programmes at Cranfield School of Management in Bedfordshire. "This is partly a push effect, as the recession makes it harder for people to find mainstream employment, but it's also a pull effect: for the last decade, it's been entrepreneurial businesses leading the way."
But is it possible to "teach" entrepreneurship? Conventional thinking has it that entrepreneurs make their living through experience – not by learning theories in lecture halls. According to Jonathan Slack, the chief executive of the Association of Business Schools (ABS), it's not so much entrepreneurs turning academic as universities that are turning practical. "Entrepreneurship courses aren't just about theory – they're about how businesses work and how they're run," he says. "Ideas are sparked in lively groups of MBA students who often end up setting up in partnership. Many schools now have incubators and hatcheries that are dedicated to helping students get their businesses off the ground."
This practical approach to entrepreneurship is being adopted by universities nationwide. In London, City University's intensive week-long summer school is now open to the public, and its new Peter Cullum Centre for Entrepreneurship helps students with bright ideas to find start-up funds. Similarly, the commercial arm of Northumbria University offers students and graduates help in setting up their own businesses, be it office space, grants or internet access. Meanwhile, Anglia Ruskin University has introduced an online training programme for new businesses, offering free support to applicants who want to get their ideas off the ground.
Such entrepreneurship courses give students two types of advantage. Firstly, they provide graduates with the skills and knowledge to set up a business – the legalities of establishing a company, property ownership, problem solving, technological training, account-keeping and business organisation. "There was very limited theory," says Rakusen. "All the classes were targeted at the people there. We used case studies from our own projects to present sessions."
The second advantage concerns contacts. The other people on the course helped to make it, says Rakusen. "We would be in a classroom with someone starting a software management company, a graphic designer, digital music pioneers, photographers – there was a lot of exciting stuff going on. We're still in contact with the other start-ups, and one of them is doing our branding."
Rakusen says the university's Institute of Digital Innovation still comes to Haus with PR opportunities, and tutors are on call for free informal mentoring and advice.
But not all entrepreneurship courses are targeted at start-ups. The largest programme for fast-growing SMEs in the UK is Cranfield School of Management's Business Growth programme. Mainly directed at managers of well-established SMEs, participants are charged a £10,000 fee for the four-week programme. Employees of high-profile companies such as Cobra Beer have attended the course, which takes on 120-150 people up to three times a year.
"It's a myth that entrepreneurship is just about starting businesses," says Burke. "It's also about businesses that want to develop. Starting up is easy – what distinguishes real entrepreneurs from high performers is the ability to grow a small business into a substantial enterprise. That's where the school can really add value. Even when you go into a corporate environment, a company needs to draw on entrepreneurial management to get through challenges and lead the industry. For us, entrepreneurship is less about small business and more about cutting-edge companies across the board. Other schools are more like small business centres with a focus on micro businesses and smaller SMEs."
With historical links to the RAF and its associated science and military companies, Cranfield continues to build links between investors and graduates. Every year, more than 200 people come back to the university to take part in "Venture Day" – a chance for them to do deals and share contacts. At the university, student participation in the optional entrepreneurship elective of the standard MBA course has jumped from 60 to 80 per cent in the past five years.
The University of the West of England has seen a 30 per cent increase in students taking its MBA in entrepreneurship since its launch two years ago, and others report similar increases. With fees of £15,000 to more than £30,000, higher education institutions appear to have found their own business venture. "Across the board, universities seem to be as enterprising as their students," says Slack.