Meg Carter looks at a university-based consultancy which aims to give students a taste of the real world
A scheme providing undergraduates with hands-on experience of working in business offers a profitable example to others eager to boost their employability. Westminster Business Consultants (WBC), run from Westminster University, is now in its second year of trading and has a client list including Royal Mail, Schroder Ventures, Ernst & Young and Brent Council and a pounds 20,000 annual turnover.

WBC is a student-run consultancy service offering clients marketing research, IT support and advice. Services are provided by Westminster students from a broad range of disciplines spanning business, law, media studies, design and linguistics. It also offers international support as part of a 300- strong European network of similar ventures through its membership of the European Junior Enterprise movement which is 30 years old this year.

"The first Junior Enterprise was set up in Paris by some MBA students back in 1967," WBC managing director Hugh Dunkerley, 23, explains. "There are now 300 throughout Europe, involving around 20,000 people in total. Many former presidents of their university's Junior Enterprise are now head of top-500 firms." The philosophy is to offer a professional and competitive service to its clients and to develop business skills and awareness among its student members. Shape and structure vary by country and culture. In the UK, WBC is non-profit-making - everything is ploughed back into the business.

WBC was launched two years ago by business studies student Zbyscek (Steve) Skowyrski, 27, managing director for its first year. "Before we could set up, we had to obtain agreement from the university and work closely with them - we are trading under its name, after all," he says. Westminster also offered a small amount of funding and free use of an office, computer, printer, fax and photocopier. "It was a total culture change to allow students to run a company from the campus."

The unique selling-point for clients is value, Skowyrski claims. WBC's prices are lower than commercial rivals, and "dynamism, creativity and commitment" offer a competitive edge, he insists. Running WBC is not a sabbatical position - business and coursework compete for participants' time. "It is seasonal, and exam-sensitive," Dunkerley concedes, although he adds: "Because we are students, we have to be extremely professional otherwise people wouldn't take us seriously, which they do."

WBC is not "vocational work experience", he insists - despite the fact that Westminster University has now constructed a course module based around WBC's activities. It is a proper business, he claims, and therein lies the appeal. Even so, one of its aims is to ensure it serves students' needs, so every effort is made to involve as many as is feasible and pay them on a project-by-project basis.

"Sadly, a good degree is no longer enough to secure a decent first job," Dunkerley adds. "Involvement in WBC gives extra value to your CV but also teaches participants new skills. It is something students studying any subject can benefit from - not just those on business studies courses."

It is a view endorsed by Professor Margaret Blunden, dean of Westminster's Faculty of Business Management and Social Studies. "We are very keen to support this. Most students now work during term times and tend to do jobs which are low paid, or at night. Few are of any professional use."

So why has it taken so long to establish itself in the UK? WBC was the first to get up and running. Only a handful of others have tested the water, the highest profile of which - Imperial College, London - has currently placed its Junior Enterprise on hold.

"The difficulty is the idea tends to be championed by one or two individuals. When they graduate, it's easy to lose momentum," says Paul Docx, head of Imperial's technical and scientific consultancy, ICon. Although ICon sells its services to industry, work is not usually done by undergraduates. "Commitment to coursework is an issue, especially if students are expected to run it as a business," he explains.

It is a potential problem, Professor Blunden acknowledges.

However, benefits can outweigh the negatives if managed carefully, she believes. "One of the major difficulties is the constant turnover of management - almost as soon as you've established a team, they graduate and move on. Succession planning is therefore key."

Already, there are indications that experience gained through working at WBC has boosted career prospects. Dunkerley is not surprised: "This is about 'real world' experience, something 99 per cent of students just don't have. We are talking to big companies, developing communications and presentation skills and managing a business. Inertia is no excuse for not joining in"n