The Student Consultancy sees Oxford University students help local organisations with real business issues. Jonathan Black, director of Oxford University Careers Service, explains

Seven years ago, two final-year undergraduates came to visit me in my role as Director of the Careers Service and suggested the idea of the Student Consultancy.

I’d spent six years as a management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, working in major organisations across Europe and in America.

I believed that with some elementary training in consulting skills, smart university students could be useful consultants to local businesses, give back to the local community, and in the process gain some valuable experiences as well.

So we set out to see if this was the case.

Over the last seven years, I and three or four colleagues have selected and trained almost 1,500 Oxford students of all ages and subject background.

We start by giving them a crash course in basic consultancy skills.

In group seminars students learn how to decode balance sheets, use concepts like market segmentation, and explore how to propose and test the kinds of business hypotheses they will identify with their clients.

They are then formed into teams of four and assigned to work on a real business problem or challenge that a local business, charity or council has set.

With about 150 students and 35 clients each term, the programme is having a real impact on local organisations.

These include the Oxford Playhouse, Abingdon Hydro, Grassroots Bicester, Low Carbon Headington, Oxford Community and Voluntary Action and Oxford City Council.

Their projects have included creating a strategy to increase recycling rates amongst students, assessing the feasibility of renewable energy plants at Thornhill park-and-ride, and measuring the impact and economic benefit of a new bike path from Eynsham to Oxford.

“It was great to feel I was helping a local organisation, outside the “bubble” of my course and college” is a common reflection by students who take part.

It’s a substantial commitment. Students have to fit the project in amongst their academic studies, sport and other activities – spending about four hours a week for a one term.

Its format is designed to give them a taste of the consultancy world from recruitment to project work.

Students have to pass an assessment to get on the programme, and after their training are given a condensed seven weeks to meet the client, conduct research, analyse the problem, come up with some solutions and then recommend actions.

Lizzy Rae, a mathematics student who took part in one of our projects, summed it up better than I could.

She said: “The Student Consultancy gave me the chance to develop other very important and very practical skills which my Maths degree cannot develop.”

My original hypothesis has been amply proved – and it is particularly rewarding that most clients do actually implement some or all of the recommendations the students propose.

As we hoped it would be, the project is a winning proposition for both student participants and local businesses.

Even students who don’t want to be consultants end up with valuable experience they can draw on when the time comes to apply for jobs.

They learn to work in a team, to engage with business and the people who work in and run local organisations.

The project experience gives them background to be able to answer tough interview questions.

Meanwhile local businesses get the benefit of free creative brainpower to tackle particular business problems.

And I don’t doubt as well that both students and clients like the Oxford City Council feel that working productively together does positive things for the ‘town-gown’ relationship.