Most students who decide to do a business-related Masters programme will have one important goal at the back of their mind: securing a job at the end of it. For many of them, the qualification will be the first time that they have studied business, and as most will not yet have ventured into the world of work, they might be lacking in the type of hands-on, practical experience that many of the big employers are looking for.
For this reason, universities have realised that the best way to prepare their students for the job market is to offer a company project as part of the course. The substance and structure of these projects can vary widely, but as a general rule, students are assigned a company with a problem it needs to solve, and work in small groups over a set period to come up with a solution.
Some universities have only recently come around to the idea, but for others, the company project has already become an integral part of their business Masters courses. Students at ESCP-EAP European School of Management, which has a London campus but is also based in four other locations across Europe, are told at the beginning of their programme that they will have to undertake a compulsory company project in their third term.
Sara Amadei, 25, recently completed a Masters in European business at ESCP, which included a three-month consultancy project for Virgin Holidays based in London. Working in a team of five, the students were given the task of improving the company's website, by conducting some market research to make the booking system more user-friendly. As she did not come from a business background, she says that the project has given her added confidence and some much needed industry experience.
"The company projects are one of the most important bits of the course, because they offer you real life experience," she says. "In class, we looked at company case studies and paper documents. But here we could communicate directly with a company and find out how the mechanics of everything worked."
The scheme at ESCP is slightly different to those offered by most other institutions, as they actually charge the companies £3,000 to have the work carried out. This money is not kept by ESCP, but is channelled straight back into student funding through a bursary scheme. However, as Amadei admits, knowing that the companies are paying for your services makes the process a lot more high-pressured.
"When you write business plans on a course, you know if you make a mistake it doesn't really matter," she says. "But in this case, you know what you do will have consequences for the company. And since they're paying for it, we wanted to give them something really good which they liked at the end. It was very challenging."
According to Marie Taillard, assistant professor of marketing at ESCP, putting this added pressure on the students means that they produce better results. She says that the scheme started on an informal basis, but has now grown to become an important and renowned part of the course. Clients are varied and do not just come from the financial sector: recent projects have been carried out for Associated Press and L'Oréal.
"Little by little it became clear that it was a great experience for the students, because not only were they learning to work with a client, but also in a team," she says. "But it also worked out well for the companies, who were getting valuable pieces of work done – things they'd always had in the back of their mind but had never got around to researching. It's a great way of making everybody happy."
Taillard admits that the projects are also very enjoyable for ESCP's teaching staff, as they get to work closely with the students during the process, acting as academic supervisors. Observing the problems and challenges the companies are up against also gives them ideas for research of their own.
Although one might assume that many companies would be put off by having to pay for the services of a team of students, this does not appear to be the case. Antoine Levy, head of UK marketing for L'Oréal Professional, recently commissioned a group from ESCP to do some essential market research for a new skincare brand the company was launching in the UK. He says that the £3,000 price tag worked out at a tenth of the cost of enlisting professional help, and he was very happy with the results.
"Cost-wise it was very effective," he says. "We didn't have much of a budget, so I couldn't have the research carried out by a huge agency. Although the students are not professionals, I had trust in them to get the job done, as they were being coached by a lecturer who was able to ensure that everything was right. We've since used the data they produced to reposition our brand, so it was definitely worth the money we invested."
Levy also points out that although the students might be understandably daunted by the task of getting to grips with a new company in a short space of time, in an area they are not familiar with, this inexperience can actually work to their advantage.
"If we do another project with students, I'd like to give them more opportunities to be creative, because they are young people who are not biased," he says. "When you've been working in the same sector for five or 10 years you tend to think always in the same way. But they can bring fresh ideas to the table."
Lancaster University Management School offer a similar programme to ESCP, but their company projects are not compulsory and they do not charge companies for the work undertaken. Students work in small groups, acting like miniature consulting firms. Dr Caroline Elliott, programme director of the MSc in management at Lancaster, says that the projects are hugely beneficial to the students, since they come away with "invaluable" practical experience and a real advantage over their peers in the job market.
"These are students who will soon be looking for graduate jobs, and the projects are a really good way to differentiate themselves from other graduates who might be applying for positions at the larger companies," she says. "It's not just a summer job at a low level in the organisation: often they'll have been thinking about strategic issues and how they relate to the company."
'We were really able to get our hands dirty'
Alex Hart, 22, completed an MSc in management at Lancaster University Management School which included a three-month company project.
"I chose to work for Holiday Inn, part of the Intercontinental hotels group. They wanted to implement a conference centre in one of their hotels, but it wasn't performing as expected. So we went in and tried to give them an insight from a different perspective. Two of us looked at the financial matters, and the other two looked at the marketing side.
I chose the project because there was such a broad range of things to do. The company was very forthcoming, and let us look at all the balance sheets and accounts. We were really able to get our hands dirty and look into the inner workings of the firm.
It's definitely a great thing to put on your CV, and it also gave me the chance to put my skills to the test. It shows potential employers that I've had experience in industry and have used my skills in a wider context.
Working for a company gives you an insight into what you're really good at, and where you should take your career. I initially wanted to do marketing, but after working for the hotel I realised that I was more interested in the financial side of things. I'm now planning to do an accountancy course."