Lessons from learners

July 13, 2001

Lancaster saved money by hiring students as consultants, Nicki Household writes.

Lancaster University has hit on a novel way to address some of its thornier management problems. Instead of employing outside consultants (who would be expensive), it has become the client of its own consultancy masters students.

The arrangement benefits both parties, since the students gain problem-solving experience in the real world - and, in many cases, get all or part of their fees paid as well.

The MA in applied research and consultancy is offered by Lancaster's School of Independent Studies, which builds tailor-made degrees around undergraduate and postgraduate students' independent research projects.

School director John Wakeford says: "When we launched the consultancy MA three years ago, we assumed the students would work for outside organisations. But last year, a student became a consultant to the university's alumni office and the enterprise was such a success - she got a distinction for her project and is now working as alumni-relations officer - that the idea blossomed, and we now have nine students working on university projects."

The report that the student produces for his or her client forms only part of the material on which they are examined. They also have to submit a diary and a 20,000-word critical account of the project.

"We've really turned the concept of work experience on its head," Wakeford says. "Instead of asking people to take a student on and keep them occupied - which can be a dreary arrangement for both parties - we ask colleagues and outside organisations whether they have got a problem that a postgraduate could address. The students then choose from the selection."

About half the 18 students on this year's course are working for outside organisations. Two are researching the needs and interests of constituents for MP Hilton Dawson, while another is working on how to develop and market two internet magazines for the Lancaster Literature Festival.

"The important thing is that the project should stretch the student," Wakeford says. "We ask them (the clients) to tailor the project to an appropriate standard and be fairly specific about what is to be achieved."

However, it is the symbiotic relationship between university as client and student as consultant that is unique. "I think we are the only university to have done this, and so far we are delighted with the results," Wakeford says. "It is a win/win situation - everybody benefits and what is also interesting is that it totally changes the relationship between student and institution."

Music graduate Jo Finnis, 24, is working as consultant to Denis McCaldin, professor of performance studies and director of Lancaster Concerts. Her brief is to research the concert audiences - who they are, why and how often they come and their musical preference - and make recommendations on how the concerts could be better marketed and publicised.

"We need to know how to make the best use of our resources and find out if we are wasting money on certain sorts of publicity," McCaldin says, "that is what Jo has undertaken to do for us." McCaldin will get the results of Finnis' research in her report in September, but there have also been regular meetings throughout the year to chart her progress and help her keep to an agreed timetable. In addition, Finnis attends a weekly two-hour workshop with consultancy MA tutor Anne Grinyer, where all the students discuss their problems and progress.

Finnis considers the course an ideal combination. In the two years between gaining her BMus (at Lancaster) and starting her MA, she worked front-of-house in a London theatre and as a library assistant in Bristol.

"I needed to get a better job, ideally in arts administration," she says. "But with only a music degree and no practical experience, I was not getting anywhere.

"Doing this research has made me much more employable and has also opened my eyes to the depth and range of all the things that go on in arts marketing. I've found the logistics of creating a concert programme to satisfy different elements of an audience absolutely fascinating."

Her only reservation is that the problems discussed at the weekly tutorial group tend not to be relevant to everyone as the consultancy projects are so diverse.

Although Finnis has not had her fees paid by the university, she has received a £500 bursary, had all her expenses paid and has earned extra money from working front-of-house at the concerts.

Tomas Lonnberg, who is working for one of Lancaster's pro vice-chancellors, Richard Davies, is looking into alternative sources of funding for the university and, in particular, how staff can be encouraged to generate more income while maintaining high research standards. Lonnberg already has a BSc in management studies and believes that this type of MA course is giving him "a good soft landing to real life". However, in the first few weeks he says: "I waffled about thinking 'how shall I actually do this'? But there was a good support system in the form of academic supervision and regular meetings with my client.

"I like the fact that there is no one telling me to do this or that on a daily basis. I am an external researcher with a deadline to produce something substantial for the senior management of the university." He is getting his fees paid.

Philip Dumbell, who is helping the dean of arts and humanities to find ways to expand the faculty's range of customers and sources of income, agrees that motivation can be a problem. He says:"I have missed the more formal structure of a conventional academic course and have sometimes struggled with motivation. The biggest spur is the thought of the weekly meeting with your client. But what I really like about this course is that it is vocational training and will undoubtedly boost my career."

Wakeford says the fact that the students get work experience and letters after their name makes the course much more parent-friendly. "When a postgraduate degree seems fairly certain to lead to a better job, parents are more inclined to see it as money well spent."

How the consultancy MA works

  • The School of Independent Studies asks colleagues and outside organisations if they have any problems they would like a trainee consultant to address
  • A list of projects is drawn up from which the consultancy MA students can choose
  • A draft contract agreeing objectives, milestones and a timetable is drawn up. Expenses are always paid. In some cases, students receive a bursary or have all or part of their fees paid
  • Client and student meet once a week to chart progress and exchange ideas
  • Students attend a weekly two-hour workshop led by the consultancy MA tutor
  • At the end of the year (September), the client receives the student's project report. This, together with a 20,000-word dissertation and project diary, is submitted to examiners.

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