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Reaping the benefits of student business consultants

Compared to other regions in the UK, businesses in the North East of England are particularly vulnerable to economic and political upheavals. According to statistics released by the Government for 2019, the North East had the second lowest number of new business start-ups and the third highest rate of start-up failures.  

Photo of the Business Clinic from the outsideStudents at the Newcastle Business School are offering pro- bono consultancy to a wide range of local businesses and their work is making a significant impact. In just eight years, 500 organisations in the region have already benefited from the students’ consultancy reports from Northumbria University Business Clinic that have a combined value of over £2.75 million. In 2018, this model went online as a Digitally Enabled Business Clinic, improving accessibility for Northumbria’s support and helping more businesses nationwide. 

Nigel Coates, an Associate Professor, is Director of the Business Clinic at Northumbria University’s Newcastle Business School. The Business Clinic is unique in that it places emphasis on experiential learning, a term used to describe the central role experience plays in the learning process. Students here are being given the opportunity to apply their skills in a professional, work environment rather than demonstrate their knowledge through a dissertation. 

The Business Clinic’s final-year undergraduate and Masters’ students act as consultants, to all types of businesses, from SMEs to multinationals, charities, social enterprises and not-for-profits. The students visit the organisation, communicate their progress to clients on a regular basis, conduct primary and secondary research on behalf of the client, and make recommendations in the form of a client report and formal presentation. By 2021, more than 2000 students had advised some 500 organisations on an extensive range of issues, including strategic marketing (both digital and offline) feasibility studies, human resources, logistics, accounting/finance and tourism projects. The student consultancies are supervised by experienced Business Clinic tutors and the close working relationship between client, student, and tutor results in knowledge transfer and the co-creation of knowledge and innovative solutions. 

The Business Clinic is part of the North East business eco-system and our principal partners include the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, North East England Chamber of Commerce, Asian Business Connexions, British Business Bank and UnLtd. Moreover, since its launch in 2013, the Business Clinic has been recognised by Small Business Charter with the award of ‘Exemplary’ status (2021), Academy of Marketing Teaching Excellence (2018) and ‘Highly Commended’ by the British Academy of Management Education Practice (2017). Feedback from the businesses involved has been overwhelmingly positive. 

The Business Clinic is the largest of its kind in the UK HE sector (A Handbook for Authentic Learning in Higher Education, 2020). The Business Clinic is highlighted in a number of reports including; “Addressing regional inequalities in innovation opportunities for BAME and disabled entrepreneurs.” (2021) Making Business Innovation Accessible to Diverse Groups — Birkbeck, University of London (bbk.ac.uk). The Business Clinic is featured in the Chartered Association of Business Schools taskforce report ‘Business Schools and the Public Good’ (2021 Page 51).  

Dr Ed Cottam, Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Business Clinic Tutor, is leading a research project on the impact of the Business Clinic on client firms and was involved in developing the student-led consultancy model into a Digitally Enabled Business Clinic, enabling support to be offered directly to businesses online, improving accessibility and outreach capacity. In 2018-2019, the Digitally Enabled Business Clinic worked with 47 local businesses, delivering consultancy worth £243,178, averaging £5,174 to participating clients. Supported by £44,279 in funding through Innovate UK (a UK-wide public body to drive productivity and economic growth from research) and the UK Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), BEIS and Innovate UK commissioned NUBC to write a ‘How To Guide’ to help support the creation of Digitally Enabled Business Clinics in other regions. 

For their part, the students are able to demonstrate real-life experience and enhance their employability skills via funded internships. Clients have an opportunity to receive help with implementation of the recommendations included in their consultancy reports; and students gain valuable business experience to include on their CV. 

For organisations in the North East facing the economic uncertainty of a post-Brexit future, they have access to free business advice which helps them to both seize opportunities and remain resilient. Being able to offer a wide range of professional consultancy services to a diverse range of organisations also provides Newcastle Business School graduates with a competitive edge.

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