Letter: Pragmatic placement

September 28, 2001

I wish to add my reservations about the effect of constraints on student placement in the Quality Assurance Agency's proposed new code of practice ("QAA issues rules for placement", THES, August 17).

I have long been a member of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school. Business placement has been a success story in most UK universities, a fact that was acknowledged by Ron Dearing and formed the centrepiece of his recommendations. This has been achieved with little formal guidance other than that shared and developed pragmatically by members of the main placement bodies in the (mainly new) universities.

Every year, about 200 Westminster Business School students are employed in a variety of companies, most of them small. The jobs they fill are real ones, not made up for the sake of a placement. The employers are asked to treat (and, usually, pay) the students as they would regular staff. This immersion in a company's affairs gives students insight into business issues that supports and reinforces the academic input.

Although most placements are regarded as a benefit by employers, they are not cost free. Students need and get some cosseting in the early months as they find their feet. Good employers accept this in hopes of a payback in superlative performance later. In the five years that I have worked on placement, I have yet to encounter any serious abuses by employers or students.

My fear with the proposed code is that potential employers may decide against taking on students if they are expected to undertake binding commitments for their care that they would not or could not extend to regular staff. The code looks very much like an attempt to re-cast placement in the familiar image of formal academic study and to import concepts, such as "learning outcomes", "appropriate learning opportunities" and the like, that have little meaning in a practical and non-standardised context.

It is an irony to me that, having been belatedly discovered by academe, this merely useful tool for consolidating education now seems in danger of death by over-refinement.

Mick Kemp

Director, Business Placement Unit

Westminster Business School

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