Scottish foster next generation of Logie Bairds for pride and profit

November 28, 2003

For-profit universities are booming, gaining credibility and threatening some traditional institutions, says Stephen Phillips, while Olga Wojtas reports on initiatives by a new breed of Scottish university entrepreneurs

Scotland has long been a seedbed of inventors - James Watt, Alexander Fleming, Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird spring readily to mind. But their inventions have often brought little specific gain to the country that spawned them. All that could be about to change.

Scottish universities aim to develop entrepreneurs who will bring about an economic regeneration in Scotland. Indeed, they are at the forefront of the national economic agenda and could provide a model for the rest of the UK in terms of regional approaches to economic creativity in universities.

Jim Wallace, deputy first minister and minister for enterprise and lifelong learning in the Scottish Executive, sees higher education as central to government ambitions, not just in terms of commercialising research, but in creating an entrepreneurial culture. "Our efforts to promote enterprise in our universities must go beyond commercial spin-off," he says. "A spirit of enterprise and innovation in graduates will not only benefit them personally, but will also help their employers and the wider economy."

One of the key drivers of this agenda is the Scottish Institute of Enterprise, part of the UK-wide science enterprise challenge. Scotland has put its own distinctive mark on the scheme, making it inclusive and flexible, and linking it to a national agenda, ranging from enterprise education in schools to reforming bankruptcy legislation.

As Richard Lambert prepares to report to the government on university-business exchange, the SIE's director, Sharon Bamford, describes why the enterprise agenda is so important in Scotland: "A lot of people are supporting this because it is about Scotland. People give their time because they have a passion for Scotland. Underpinning it is an economic necessity. If we do not deliver on economic wealth, Scottish devolution will not work."

Sir Alan Langlands, chairman of the SIE and principal of Dundee University, says the institute's chief aim is to stimulate students' interest, not to insist that every science and engineering student become an entrepreneur.

But, for those with a business idea, there is backing from each institution's SIE-supported commercialisation practitioner, annual business competition, workshops with business experts and the chance to network with prospective investors. Sir Alan reports that over 2001 and 2002 the number of business ideas considered rose from 104 to 236. In the same time, the SIE has helped to create 55 sustainable businesses.

The difficulties in crossing the cultural divide between industry and higher education are often quoted, but a spokesperson for Confederation of British Industry Scotland says the SIE is building a useful bridge "between the ivory towers of academe and the harsh reality of the workplace".

Scotland's size means it can easily bring key people from the two sides together, and the SIE board itself has equal membership from higher education and industry. This year, it ran a seminar for venture capitalists and technology-transfer staff, which Bamford says helped them to "identify and navigate the roadblocks, dead ends and diversions in each other's line of business". Its funding lets universities hire people specifically to champion entrepreneurship education.

Jonathan Levie, acting director of Strathclyde University's Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship, says there are increasing numbers of people who have worked in both sectors who make ideal candidates. "I think the answer is very careful recruitment," he says.

Bamford stresses that, despite the Scotland-wide scheme, the aim is not to make everyone the same but to let them develop their own path to innovation. "It is a national agenda, but it is interpreted in different ways according to the needs and culture of each university."

Some SIE staff have been appointed to business faculties, others to engineering. Some have generated new modules, others have developed credit-bearing courses. And while there is no compulsion to follow a particular line, universities are prepared to learn from one another.

John Archer, principal of Heriot-Watt University, says: "What we've all been trying to do is share ways in which we can create learning and teaching programmes of different sorts and levels to make sure the students understand better the enterprise business in Scotland."

The second phase of the SIE's work has gone beyond formal teaching to promote innovative projects. Archer says Heriot-Watt has unashamedly copied the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in encouraging students to set up an enterprise competition for which they find their own sponsorship.

Glasgow University is allowing students to become shareholders in a science or technology business that they will run each year. They draw up a business plan in autumn and launch the company before Christmas. It will then run until August. There is a strong incentive to succeed as, after this time, they can pay themselves a wage.

Edinburgh University is helping science and engineering students concentrate on the technical side of the company by building business teams with economic and management students. It has set up a website and database to matchmake between the two groups, which study on different campuses.

Abertay Dundee and St Andrews universities are looking to a recent graduate to stimulate entrepreneurship among people of his own age, and have jointly appointed a student-enterprise intern, Kash Bhattacharya. He is the former student president at Abertay and he graduated this summer with a first in economics. Since the beginning of term, he has helped set up entrepreneurship societies with 80 members at St Andrews and 40 at Abertay.

Jackie McKenzie, graduate enterprise manager at Abertay, says:

"It's much more credible to set up a society that's self-driven if it's being done by somebody in their 20s who has their own business and is trying to establish themselves. They're working with people with a similar mindset."

Some staff fear that there could be tensions between the SIE and individual universities, with institutions resentful of the SIE taking the glory, but Sir Alan sees no evidence of this emerging. "There will be many cases where the SIE is funding the production of materials, and it's not a bad thing that they then expect a share of the credit," he says.

There is a question mark over the SIE's long-term future: some think it should close up shop once it has embedded entrepreneurial education within universities. But its role is about to expand rather than diminish, even though its funding from the Office of Science and Technology ends next September. The OST scheme, confined to full universities, initially covered only five research-led institutions. The SIE board extended this to all 13 Scottish universities. Now the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has pledged core funding for another three years, contingent on two things: every higher education institution must be involved, and it will no longer be confined to science and engineering.

"We're trying to make it all-inclusive so that everyone in higher education will benefit," a Shefc spokesperson says. "We're working with (the SIE) very closely in how they will develop, and looking at how Scottish Enterprise and the careers service might become involved. It's a mighty agenda."

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