Profiting from learning in more ways than one

27th June 2014 at 01:00
Critics complain about a lack of entrepreneurial spirit in young people, but one nascent initiative demands that students run real businesses before they have even graduated, finds ?Julia Horton

As the television show The Apprentice has demonstrated time and again, enthusiasm alone rarely makes for a successful business venture. And so it proved for one group of student entrepreneurs who learned, to their cost, the importance of doing their homework before making a pitch.

"I was working with a group and we really wanted to make home-made soup to sell on campus," 19-year-old George Morgan tells an audience of lecturers and education professionals in Glasgow, gathered for an event entitled "Is education killing creativity and enterprise?".

"We sent out lots of emails and we got a meeting with a lady who was quite high up in the student union. It was the first business meeting we'd ever had and we were so unprepared. She asked if we knew of any local competitors and we said, `No, that's the great thing about it, no one else sells soup.' And she just said: `We sell soup.'

"Luckily she wasn't horrible to us, she was nice about it. It was a big business lesson."

Probably thankful that neither he nor his team suffered the public humiliation regularly meted out by Lord Sugar to Apprentice contestants, Morgan joins in the laughter that greets his anecdote. The affable student is one of four who have just completed their first year at Team Academy, an innovative programme aimed at turning them into entrepreneurs before they even leave university.

The students' presentation forms part of the Emporium of Dangerous Ideas, an annual festival run by the College Development Network to showcase challenging theories about education. The topic of entrepreneurship is certainly at the forefront of people's minds right now. The Wood Commission's recently published recommendations for developing Scotland's young workforce have provided fresh impetus to cut youth unemployment in the country by improving links between education and employers.

Delegates at the Emporium event have grave concerns about the way vocational qualifications in Scotland are widely regarded as inferior to academic courses. Brian Humphrey, for example - innovation manager at Skills Development Scotland - laments the "snobbery" that he warns is contributing to the country lagging behind its European counterparts such as Norway, Germany and Switzerland.

But despite - and also because of - the soup incident, Morgan is proof that the right kind of education can produce highly creative and enterprising young people.

Allowing students to make mistakes and to learn from them is part of the ethos of Team Academy, which is run alongside standard business degree courses but without exams, lectures or timetables. Last year, George and the other three students joined the UK's first Team Academy programme at the University of the West of England in Bristol.

The scheme was founded in 1993 in Finland by a marketing lecturer. Unlike traditional degrees, it eschews classrooms and lectures in favour of personal experience. Students are separated into teams and, guided by trained coaches, encouraged to find their own way. They are given the opportunity to meet and work with a range of business people but are expected to build their own income-generating enterprises.

Two decades on, Team Academy's students have generated a collective turnover of more than e1 million (pound;800,000) before even graduating. Nearly half have gone on to run their own businesses, which include snowboarding firms, clothing chains and advertising agencies.

Keeping it real

In a short film about the programme, one Finnish student sums up the driving force behind Team Academy: "You push yourself much harder because you have real customers and this is real money, real life. If you really feel you are responsible for something, you're going to [aim for] the best possible result."

Some 10 countries now have Team Academy programmes. Although it is not yet being delivered in Scotland, interest in the initiative is growing.

Elinor Vettraino, curriculum manager for education at Fife College, is about to become the first qualified Team Academy coach north of the border.

"I think the college sector across Scotland is in desperate need of new models of practice, new ways of developing an entrepreneurial sense of self," she says. "Particularly after the Wood report looked at the fact that we have so little connection with business.

"I will finish my training in October 2014, which will make me the only person in Scotland trained as a team master for Team Academy. We're in the middle of massive restructuring at the moment, but senior management are interested and excited by this, and I'd like to think that we will look at starting a Team Academy at Fife College over the next few years."

And primary and secondary schools could benefit just as much as colleges, Vettraino believes. "To me, it fits the bill for Curriculum for Excellence, without a shadow of a doubt," she says. "You could see from the students [at the Emporium] today that they are perfectly capable of holding their own already."

Meanwhile, another college lecturer north of the border is already forging ahead with her own ambitious approach to fostering creativity and enterprise. Fiona Muhsin tells delegates that "ripping up the timetable" is helping Dundee and Angus College to produce students who are seen by some business leaders as better equipped than university graduates to meet the needs of local companies.

She has come up with a plan to revolutionise the way the college delivers its higher national diploma (HND) in interactive media, inspired by her experience of financial cutbacks.

Muhsin explains that she was fired three times in three years from three departments - a victim of the millions of pounds' worth of cuts Dundee was making. Amid the squeeze, the college was still talking about enterprise.

"I've always been one for entrepreneurial activity and working with local chambers of commerce, but I realised that I'd become part of the sausage-making approach," she says, commenting on how colleges often churn out students who do not meet employers' needs. "So I decided to create a five-year plan for the HND that was enterprise-driven. We had moved to a new campus where classrooms were at a premium, and I said: `I don't need a classroom, I can do without equipment.' I see myself not as a lecturer any more, but more as a project manager."

Instead of a traditional timetable, Muhsin has what she calls a "master plan" in the form of an online spreadsheet from which students can "pull out a timescale for a particular part of a project, breaking it down into resources, days needed and who's doing what".

Give and take

Under the plan, which began in 2011, students undertake unpaid work for 20 local micro-businesses, where they receive invaluable work experience. In return, firms who could not otherwise afford to pay for a website, say, get one free of charge. Companies have to accept that the results might not always be as good as those of paid professionals, Muhsin says, but feedback so far has been positive.

Some of the students are about to start work on a website for the Dundee Heritage Trust. A well-known mobile app developer is keen to take them on, too.

Muhsin adds: "The chief executive [of the development company] said they had huge growth in jobs, exponential, but university graduates were so blinkered and focused that they couldn't get them to change their ways or think outside the box. He liked our students because they are so enthusiastic. They are like sponges."

At the end of the five years, she expects a student from the first cohort to have created their own start-up. There is still a long way to go, but in parts of the education sector, at least, the seeds of creativity and enterprise are being sown.

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