Rise of work experience presents universities with a range of challenges

Institutions must adapt as employers shun Ucas points and degrees, says Paul Redmond

August 7, 2015
work experience, internship, job, jobs

News that Ernst and Young has joined PricewaterhouseCoopers in shrugging its shoulders at Ucas points and saying “meh” to degree classifications has been widely applauded by the higher education sector. 

By taking this stance, the professional services firm joins a growing band of recruiters that are seeking to recruit from a more diverse and representative talent pool.

But don’t assume that the competition for graduate jobs is about to become any easier. If firms are no longer as fixated as they once were on Ucas points, it’s only because they’ve found a far better way of assessing future talent. It’s called work experience. 

According to the research firm High Fliers, about a third of the 4,500 vacancies advertised in 2015 by leading accounting and professional services firms were filled by those who had previously worked for those same organisations – in most cases, via internships or work experience placements.

And each year, this proportion is growing.

Accounting and professional services firms aren’t the only ones to have latched on to the benefits of recruitment via work experience – or, as it’s alternatively known, “the six-month interview”.

This year, nearly half of all leading graduate recruiters said that they would be unlikely to recruit a student who had little or no work experience. This was regardless of the student’s academic qualifications. No work experience, no job.

The rise of work experience presents universities with a range of challenges. For a start, what about the impact of personal contacts? Access to work experience opportunities, particularly with popular or prestigious firms, is often dependent on informal networks and personal acquaintances. It can even be influenced by where you live.

As such, benefits that are to be gained from work experience are often distributed unequally across the student body. Universities are aware of this, and many are now investing significant resources in increasing work experience opportunities.

Institutions are also taking steps to ensure that students begin their career planning as early as possible – preferably in their first year. Making the most of work experience requires careful planning and organisation. It’s too important to be left until the final term.

So while many will applaud Ernst and Young’s decision to scrap A-level grades, in today’s graduate job market, some students are discovering that it’s not Ucas points or even degree classification that gets your foot in the door, but work experience.

Paul Redmond is director of student life at the University of Manchester. Follow him on Twitter.

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Reader's comments (2)

It used to be said that a sandwich degree course typically increased the classification by about a grade. The new higher apprenticeship which usually includes a Professionally accredited HE qualification, however is expensive for employers and still inconvenient for many trainees, moreover the bulk of opportunities potentially exist in SMEs, a sector that has struggled to fund or accommodate training. Perhaps more higher apprenticeships could be offered as standard HE qualifications, with student picking up the degree fee element and the employer/government budget the training/NVQ component. The regular full time 3 year degree course may need to be offered in flexible part time transferable blocks, as pioneered in some Masters programmes. i.e. a dramatic change to conventional university teaching mind set.
Work experience is incredibly important for today's graduates and I always advise any students that speak to me about it to take advantage of any opportunities for work experience. It quite simply gives you much better preparation to deal with today's graduate scheme selection procedures, particularly competency-based interviews. I have conducted a number of interviews for graduates and those with work experience have always out-performed inexperienced candidates. Equality of access to this work experience is always an issue in a world where few businesses operate work experience recruitment processes to the same standard as their graduate schemes. However some firms do and, having worked for one of them and been involved in work experience recruitment I believe this system is hugely beneficial for the company (by being able to fast track promising work experience candidates into graduate schemes without risk of losing them by putting them through a whole new recruitment process) as well as much fairer and transparent for students seeking work experience.

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