A guest post from Dr Phil Larkin
A CULTURE OF BUSINESS FOR THE NORTH: A SCHOOL OF BUSINESS FOR BELFAST?
Working as I now am in the South of England, and making frequent trips down to London to visit friends and family, one thing that has struck me is the number of people from Northern Ireland who are living and working down here, either in a professional capacity or as proprietors of their own businesses (this is true also of people from other parts of Ireland, but for the purposes of this article I intend to concentrate only on those from the North). Very often, they are the graduates of top universities, and are highly intelligent, industrious and motivated individuals, keen to advance in their own professions, or build up their own businesses for the benefit of themselves and their families – in other words, the type of people one would encourage to come back and live in Northern Ireland, where they could work as potential wealth creators for the benefit of the whole of our society. They come from all creeds and classes of the Province. Many seem, at least prima facie, to be happy where they are and are content with paying the odd visit back home to visit friends and relatives, and to see the old place again. When asked why they are working over in England, the usual answer is that not only are salary rates higher (especially in professions such as finance, law and accountancy), but also they feel that there is more scope to advance themselves in southern English society without some of the attitudes and petty jealousies of home weighing upon them. It is a source of disappointment to me that the Province seems to forget about these people once they have left.
This article is written primarily from gut feeling as opposed to a long period of intellectual thought, and will not dwell on politics or philosophy to any great degree. It is written not only with the aim of putting forward what I believe to be a sound idea for wealth creation and, eventually, effecting a sea change in societal attitudes for the Province which I still call home, but also to generate comment and criticism. My ideal is that one day relatively soon Northern Ireland will be an ideal place for investment but also a place where people of drive and ambition would be happy to set up private commercial enterprises, unencumbered by begrudgery or envy.
I hope, by submitting this article, to generate critical responses and comment from those who read it.
Ulster’s Brain Drain
Put frankly, Northern Ireland loses a large proportion of the cream of its ambitious young people to English and Scottish universities every year. They come from both unionist and nationalist backgrounds, and many of them never return. They embark on very often lucrative careers in Great Britain, Europe, the US, Australia, and elsewhere. Many local graduates (perhaps too many) appear happy to aspire to the professions, and the public sector as civil servants and teachers. I suspect the reason for this is at least in part due to the continuing emphasis placed on the professions by schools’ careers advisory services in Northern Ireland – by grammar schools in particular (this article does not, I hasten to add, decry grammar schools). There is nothing wrong with wishing for the security of public sector employment, but it is disappointing that so many bright young people back home seem content with falling into bureaucratic positions, and accepting the mediocre but safe and steady salaries that these bring. Perhaps, in our corner of the world, we still have a wary or puritanical attitude towards making money, and are even more sceptical of those who seek to make money.
My proposition is a relatively simple one, and I do not pretend at all that it will solve all of Northern Ireland’s economic problems. But surely it would be a firm step in the right direction. I would propose that an independent or semi-independent School of Business be created in or around Belfast, perhaps affiliated to Queen’s University, or perhaps not, similar to the way in which the Smurfitt School of Business operates in Dublin. No expense should be spared (within reason) on the premises and facilities, and leading businessmen and women from the province should be invited to make donations to the institution, and it could be headed, at least ceremonially, by one of the most established and successful figures in trade or commerce from Northern Ireland. What the School would offer is this: an MBA course of two years duration, in conjunction with an institution such as Harvard University (my institution of choice), allowing those students on the course to claim a Harvard MBA after graduation. They would spend one year of the MBA in Belfast, and another year in the United States. Part of their MBA could involve a one-year stint in business in any part of the world after they had successfully completed their course examinations and dissertations. In a sense, it would operate somewhat like a Rhodes Scholarship in reverse, with a curriculum matching that of other leading international business schools. Substantial salaries and perks should be offered to those who teach on the course – people who should already have an international reputation.
Who should be admitted to the course? Initially, perhaps a small cohort of between 30 – 40 students would be enrolled, after a competitive interview and assessment process. Students would come from the Province, from either a nationalist or unionist background, and wish to settle and make their livelihood primarily in Northern Ireland. I would be inclined to offer first refusal to Oxford and Cambridge graduates from Northern Ireland (in any discipline, engineering, Economics, History, Law etc), at least initially, which would mean that the MBA and any new Belfast School of Business would have to be marketed aggressively in these institutions. In order to finance their studies, those selected for the course would be given a scholarship, and the opportunity for a government loan should they need it.
What about when they have graduated and worked for some time in business, in whatever capacity? These MBA graduates would then be invited to submit a detailed business plan, backed up by a feasibility study, for setting up business in Northern Ireland. If it is judged adequate (and I would hope that many of them would be so judged), then a local government grant could be offered to that graduate in order for them to get their business set up and running, and, if necessary, further credit could be arranged by local government coming to some form of agreement with local banks. For the first years of its existence, our local government should keep in close contact with these businesses and monitor their progress. Year on year, it is envisaged that these MBA graduates would gradually form a vanguard of major wealth and employment creators in Northern Ireland, and the School could then broaden its intake of applicants.
There may be some readers who already believe that this idea for a School of Business in Belfast belongs only in the realms of fantasy, and would not work in practice. I have no problems with that, provided they explain to me why they hold this belief. I am not so naïve to believe that the mere presence of this School would serve to make Northern Ireland the Singapore of Europe, but at least it would help in creating a Province that makes the statement to the world that “Yes, we are looking beyond sectarian politics, beyond the troubles, and are a society which is positively welcoming to investors, and have enthusiastic people here with the ability to make investment work!” I believe that the idea for a School of Business in Belfast is one which a UUP which has taken great strides to modernise itself and be relevant to new generations could take up, and surely the idea would appeal to the SDLP and Alliance also?
There will also be charges of elitism made against the idea of a Belfast Business School, from a variety of usual suspects. But, I ask detractors, why should the rest of the world snap up the cream of our talent and brains, and why shouldn’t we wish to encourage people who wish to be employment and wealth creators in the Province? Yes, it is true that wealth and privilege brings temptation, but so too does poverty and unemployment, and our society has seen too much of that in recent decades. It is also true that ultimately success in business is not just down to academic credentials, but is also a matter of flair, drive, and industry, but surely we should be willing to take a risk with our best people, if we wish to keep them in the Province creating wealth for us?
Perhaps some of the funds which have been granted or donated to the Human Rights Commission in their self-serving, self-regarding desire to put responsibility for social, economic, and even political decisions into the hands of an unelected set of judges could be funnelled into any School of Business, where I believe that they would do far more good. I recently read a Belfast Telegraph article by a leading academic in Northern Ireland making a mealy-mouthed and whining plea for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights (which few local people outside the academic community and human rights industry appear interested in), the sub-text being that he simply wanted to justify his position in this world, and the ample grants which he has no doubt received. Isn’t it time that we moved beyond this emphasis on the “rights” culture?
The process by which wealth is created out of little more than brains and raw energy is not new to the North of Ireland, the only part of the Island to experience the industrial revolution. Queen’s Island, on which the shipyards of Harland and Woolf were set up, were no splendid Clyde or Mersey, but a small, insignificant stream, dug out and developed by the sweat of Belfast men themselves, without government financial assistance. Isn’t it time we revisited this “can do” attitude, which, in my opinion, only lies dormant in ourselves and our young people today?
Dr Phil Larkin