Work experience matters. Employers seek graduates who can demonstrate how they can apply their knowledge in real-world settings. But in a competitive labour market, what chance is there for those students who do not have the networks to create these opportunities for themselves before graduating? And how can students, already riddled with debt before they enter the workplace, even consider undertaking an unpaid internship?
Especially students from less-advantaged backgrounds. More to the point, why should they pay? The very word “internship” connotes opportunities for the privileged, and for those who are well-connected and can work for free to open doors to their chosen careers.
Less bank of mum and dad, more well-connected work acquaintances of mum and dad. The playing field is definitely not even when it comes to accessing the workplace.
Social mobility is all the rage. So how can we, as university educators, put our money where our mouths are to challenge structural inequalities? More specifically, how can we collaborate with government and industry to help our graduates compete for jobs in a world of big data and a labour market crying out for skills to solve complex issues?
And how can we showcase to industry the talent pool that is available to them? What we need are more bridges between universities and the workplace.
Through our paid internship programme at the University of Manchester Q-Step Centre, we have invested in developing our students’ data skills to create a pipeline into interesting data-driven careers.
In just five years we have witnessed 200 undergraduate students put their learning from the classroom into practice in the workplace through two-month long, data-driven, research-led projects in more than 60 organisations. Participants were all paid the living wage.
The University of Manchester Q-Step Centre is part of a national initiative to improve quantitative research skills in the undergraduate population in the humanities and social sciences. It’s funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the Economic and Social Research Council and the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Our students get to learn how to critique and analyse numerical social data, in organisations that use this for decision-making.
Our undergraduates have spent time in prestigious places. Based in Manchester, we have nurtured our links with research groups in thinktanks such as IPPR North, local government departments, social enterprises and northern-based government offices.
In London, six government departments have hosted our students, plus market and social research companies including Ipsos Mori, YouGov and AudienceNet. We have even placed students overseas in Washington DC at the World Bank and the Open Data Watch group, and in Melbourne with the Australian Institute for Family Studies.
We are now tracking what a difference this makes to our students’ career prospects.
Our students are bright, driven, curious people interested in the complexity of the social world and how to use rigorous research methods to explore it, and uncover answers that lead to a better world.
Our student feedback confirms that without these opportunities, students doubt that they would be doing what they are now. I have so much material from their reflections that I am writing a book, Work placements, internships and applied research, to help others find and explore opportunities to get work experience.
The million-dollar question now is: who pays? Should the burden fall on universities (as is currently the case at the University of Manchester) or the organisations that benefit? Should the government be funding more work experience opportunities? (If so, I'll be the first to apply for the position to lead this.)
We know that work experience counts. These experiences provide our students with far more than simply being part of a workplace. Participants leave having produced reports, blog posts, articles and news stories; having learned new research skills; and having acquired experience of statistical data analysis. And not to mention that they gain increased confidence, a sense of direction and important contacts and networks which they can go on to use in their professional lives.
These students are worth taking a chance on – and I believe the academy needs to develop more internship initiatives. I’ve seen first-hand that interventions of this type can help with their social mobility. The University of Manchester is rightly proud of its work in opening access to all; the Q-Step Centre’s paid internship programme simply extends this to opening access to the workplace.
Jackie Carter is a professor in statistical literacy at the University of Manchester and co-director of the Q-Step Centre.