Saturday, 27 February 2010

A school of business for Belfast?

A guest post from Dr Phil Larkin


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.

Deflecting Criticism
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 na├»ve 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


K D Tennent said...

An interesting idea for a course, but Northern Ireland already has at least two business schools that I'm aware of. QUB already has a Management School, which is ranked 19th in the UK in the last Research Assessment Exercise. Ulster has one too. Both are very good. I'm not sure they would welcome the competition when they could just as easily host such a scheme, while benefiting from the spill over effects of being in an institution with other social science academics.

Also, is HBS really the best value? HBS charge $46,150 for one year alone. This scheme could easily end up costing over £100,000 per student. Also many academics in the field take issue with HBS's case based approach. Perhaps better to send them to somewhere like the LSE where they can get a more broadly based education for half that.

Jeffrey Peel said...

Northern Ireland is too small a place to sustain a top business school - and could not sustain the necessary VC market required to sustain a business school spewing out MBAs with lots of business ideas. Business education is best obtained outside of Northern Ireland because 1) Nothern Ireland has a tiny market and 2)Northern Ireland is too small to sustain large indigenous businesses because of 1).

The United Kingdom has some of the finest business schools in the world - including The London Business School, Ashridge etc. As Northern Ireland is part of the UK people here have as much opportunity to attend them as people elsewhere in the UK.

However, business schools alone are not necessarily the route to entrepreneurial growth. I have many friends and clients who have accumulated considerable wealth without the need for post-graduate business training. Indeed some of our most noted businessmen and women have had no such education.

What Northern Ireland does lack is an entrepreneurial culture - and to some extent this can be explained by the smothering nature of the public sector here. Too many parents encourage their children into superannuated boredom rather than business. Few of our politicians have achieved anything in business.

Regional policy for this place needs to focus overtly on doing everything to reduce public sector dependency and to encourage enterprise. A good place to start would be a reduction in the block grant and a substantial reduction in corporation tax to encourage FDI - that will, in turn, spin out more indigenous businesses.

We also need to introduce a system whereby public sector employees can be sacked.

However our education sector has a role to play at Primary and Secondary education sectors to encourage children to start creating their business ideas as soon as possible. My 11 year old son is already working on his.

But we also need to recognise that our ablest business talent will leave. But they might just come back. I did.

O'Neill said...

Jeff has already mentioned one (ie the smallness of the mkt) but NI has 3 further inherent weaknesses which would inhibit the success of such a school:

1. The *entitlement* culture ("I exist, therefore I shall have")
2. The anti-entrepreneurial bias of many of the grammar schools.
3. OK, a purely personal opinion... the instinctive desire of many NI folk to put the other man down rather than try to emulate his success.

Having said that, there is a precedent on mainland Europe which proves that, given good planning and correct circumstances, such a forward thinking idea can work.

The Central European University and Business School was set up by the Hungarian-American investor/philantrophist George Soros at the end of the 80s when the Communist system was starting to crumble. The conditions were much worse than we have here presently in NI (eg one of the first lessons that were taught to new students was the fact that they wouldn't be thrown in jail for the "crime" of thinking beyond the state-approved comfort zone).

Its main achievement is that it produced a whole host of the young democrats and economists which emerged from the mid 90s onwards in e/c Europe and the old USSR (including Chekov's chums in Georgia;)). It achieved that by ignoring the political and economic norms set out by the various state authorities and by realising at the very start that it needed to rely on its own financial and intellectual resources.

NI isn't Eastern Europe circa 89, but as was the case there the intellectual and political norms are set in stone and for such a project as recommended above to work will require substantial independent funding and the courage to stand outside the state and communal thought control.

Anonymous said...

I do think that building up an excellent university would be desirable - and that will mean the tough one of raising student fees when England and Wales do.

Anonymous said...

Phil's long-standing interest in the SDLP obviously doesn't stretch to him knowing that he's spinning a line from Alasdair McDonnell.

Anonymous said...

From what I have read thus far, all of the comments have given me much food for thought, and I appreciate them greatly.

Jeffery Peel's comment, in particular, has given me pause for thought, forthrightly put as it is. Perhaps he is right when he suggests that Northern Ireland is too small a place to sustain a top class business school, and both he and O'Neill are certainly right about the limits to NI as a market place. I also concur with the other three points made by O'Neill on why NI is sometimes not conducive to entrepreneurialism.

Peel is right to argue that success in business is often not down to degree level or postgraduate education, but to flair, drive, ingenuity and common sense. But there are many people at home with these qualities in abundance. What they perhaps lack is the confidence to take risks in this field, and a learning culture which is at best tepid towards the notion of wealth creation.

The lesson in all this, it seems to me, is that the growth of a business and entrepreneurial culture should be inculcated in our children, of all classes and creeds, as early as possible, by getting them familiar with ideas such as business plans and forms of employment at primary school level. It is interesting that Jeffrey's son has already started working on his - perhaps an example for other parents and educational establishments? This is perhaps an idea that Sir Reg Empey, himself a successful businessman and Minister of Learning and Employment, could market more aggressively? Another reality is that the promotion of an enterpise culture in the education system is simply not going to happen under SF's tenure of this ministry. Time for other parties to do something about this, perhaps?

Even the comment by the anonymous blogger down below I found heartening. I genuinely did not realise that Alastair McDonnell has suggested a similar idea (lax of me I know but I'm not living at home any more and pay less attention to the content of Stormont debates than I probably should) but I find it very heartening that the SDLP should be examining ideas life this. It makes a change from pedalling dusty concepts of arcane nationalism unchanged from the days of the Anti-Partition League in the 1950s.

Phil Larkin

Anonymous said...

I should also have added that Jeffrey Peel's approach towards the creation of an enterprise culture in NI echoes the aim expressed by Gordon Brown, when Chancellor of the Exchequer, to create generations of "tuck shop entrepreneurs" who learn the skills of business at an early stage. I laud this as a great idea, which, if effected in our schools, would gradually effect a sea change in NI society.

Phil Larkin

Stoffels du Plessis said...

We've got good business schools on South Africa, but the problem is that too many of our entrepreneurs leave the bloody country once they've graduated!

CW said...

It seems that NI suffers from the same problem as South Africa in this regard, Stoffels!

NI certainly needs more enterpreneurs and more foreign investment and needs to reduce its over-bloated and largely unproductive public sector. But for these things to happen the conditions need to be right. Society needs to change, attitudes need to change. It could take quite a few years yet, but it's far from impossible.

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