Business

Silicon Valley entrepreneur course comes to London

Canary Wharf Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Stanford is to swap Silicon Valley in California for Canary Wharf in London's Docklands

Stanford University, one of the world's great institutions for turning hi-tech ideas into huge businesses, is going to start teaching in London from the autumn.

The Californian university, where Google began as a PhD project, is going to offer its "Stanford Ignite" entrepreneurship course in London for the first time from September.

Universities around the world have been experimenting in ways to teach students beyond their own campuses.

There have been much-hyped attempts to provide courses online, in the wave of massive open online courses, or so-called Moocs.

And other universities have opened branch campuses in other countries, almost like mini-versions of the parent institution.

But the approach adopted by Stanford Graduate School of Business is to take the course and the staff on a global tour, like a rock band or maybe a prestigious theatre company taking its production to new audiences.

University unplugged

When the London course begins in the autumn, it will become the first European city to join this network, with New York, Bangalore and Beijing already part of this academic roadshow.

Image copyright Stanford
Image caption Stanford has become associated with starting up high technology companies

For Stanford, last week rated in the top five of the world's mostly highly regarded universities, this is a quietly radical experiment.

It means doing without the trappings that come with such a blue-chip institution - the historic buildings, the campus, the physical location in California.


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Instead, for three months in the autumn, this Stanford offshoot is going to be in a borrowed office block in Canary Wharf in London's Docklands.

Bethany Coates, the assistant dean in charge of the project, said: "It's been a fundamental insight for us.

"We're a university. We shouldn't be in the real estate business, the catering business, the janitorial business."

On the road

She says taking the course around the world has shown that a university's distinctive identity can be separated from its bricks and mortar.

It meant "that we could replicate the Stanford culture and Stanford approach in a room in an office block that doesn't belong to us".

"This has much larger implications for higher education," said the assistant dean for global innovation programs.

Image copyright Stanford
Image caption Students taking the course in Beijing have Stanford staff in the room and on the screen

The course, costing $10,000 (£6,744) is delivered by Stanford academics with video link-ups with other staff in California.

In contrast, top US business schools can cost $100,000 (£67,444) per year for an MBA student living on campus.

Digital launchpad

Stanford's business school decided to "export" the course to students who could not have travelled to California. "We found a way to come to them instead," said the assistant dean.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Google was one of the digital ideas developed from Stanford

Students will get a certificate for the three-month course, rather than a full degree.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, says it remains to be seen whether employers will be sufficiently impressed by this rather than a conventional degree.

"Will it really be a Stanford experience, if it's a classroom full of English people in London?"

But he says this is a project that could find a way for universities trying to deliver courses overseas.

Despite the enthusiasm for branch campuses and online courses, he says universities have so far struggled to globalise.

"It's much harder than people think," he says. Even the names of many universities are tied to a geographical location.

But the Stanford project, says Mr Hillman, could offer a new and more affordable model.

Martin Hall, emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Business in South Africa, describes it as a "very clever" move.

Prof Hall, until recently vice chancellor of Salford University in the UK, said it represents the "next phase of internationalisation".

Overseas branch campuses proved expensive and vulnerable to local politics, he said. And the Moocs are proving to be an experimental phase rather than the finished product.

But a "roadshow" like this allows the university to retain control, without facing high costs.

"We're going to see more and more of this." And such flexible projects could see them "pinching students from under the noses of other universities", said Prof Hall.

But it depends on having a big enough "global brand" and he says Stanford is one of the few universities which could attract students in any continent.

Higher education ministers around the world have seen Stanford and Silicon Valley as the template for linking higher education with hi-tech industries and a surrounding halo of investors, ready to back the next piece of digital alchemy.

This has spawned firms such as Google, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems, with economists estimating a few years ago that revenues of $2.7trn (£1.8trn) were being generated annually by companies founded by Stanford alumni.

Where egos dare

Ms Coates says the entrepreneurial culture has created a "porous border" between the university and the hi-tech industries growing up around it.

Image caption Del Boy and Rodney would not be model applicants for modern entrepreneurs

Students on the inaugural course in London will have to turn real-life projects into commercial propositions and then put their ideas to Silicon Valley investors.

"We believe very strongly that entrepreneurship can be taught," says Ms Coates.

"We provide a pragmatic insight into what being an entrepreneur is actually like, we want to replicate the environment, working incredibly hard, making hard decisions, working as part of a team," she says.

"People figure out pretty quickly if that's what they want to do with their lives or not," she said.

What's also apparent is that today's digital entrepreneurs are not wheeler-dealers with a sharp suit and a line in smarmy sales patter.

Ms Coates expects more than two thirds of the intake of up to 50 students to have masters degrees or PhDs.

These are people with sophisticated research projects who need to learn how to turn the grey matter into gold. She anticipates ideas for Apps, digital innovations, big data and healthcare.

And the entrepreneur is no longer someone who is investing heavily in their own high opinion of themselves.

"Self-promoters and big egos are red flags for us," she said.