A generation clocks on

March 20, 1998

Under the impact of a keen government, financial hardship and the Dearing inquiry, students are being encouraged into work while still at university.But does it benefit them or their employers? Below, Harriet Swain looks at the latest research, Brenda Little (opposite)assesses whether placements work and students, employers and academics describe the pitfalls and the potential

A few days into his summer work experience placement at a small product design company, Jamie MacSween left Pounds 800 worth of prototypes in a plastic bag by his desk. When he arrived for work the next morning he found the cleaner had thrown them away. But in spite of this hiccup, he proved so valuable to the company, Autosonics Ltd, that he stayed for 15 weeks instead of the planned six and now continues to work for them one day a week, while finishing his masters in product design engineering at the University of Strathclyde.

His story shows both the potentials and the pitfalls of work experience - short periods within a university or college course which the student spends working for companies or industry. Already common in the United States, work experience looks set to become an increasing feature of British higher education in the next century.

It is not altogether a new idea. Lawyers, medics and the clergy have always done some training on the job. Industrial placements have been around since the 1950s and the Department for Education and Employment has paid for more than 40 projects over the last ten years aimed at linking work and learning for students. In America undergraduates are offered the chance to do an internship or work experience for one term out of a four-year degree.

The National Union of Students estimates that about half of Britain's students are employed in part-time jobs, while studying, to earn their keep. Most take on vacation work for the same reason. About 50,000 students every year take sandwich courses which involve placements lasting between 40 and 48 weeks during their degree. And increasing numbers are taking gap years before university both to earn money and to broaden their experience.

Demand among students for these kinds of opportunities has grown as employers step up the pressure, wanting students to be "work-ready" by the time they start their first job in order to cope with more flexible working practices and new technology. It has also been boosted by recent government emphasis on "lifelong learning". Learning is no longer something that takes place only in educational institutions.

But it was last year's Dearing report on higher education which suddenly made work experience a hot issue. Sir Ron Dearing's committee made three clear recommendations - aimed at institutions, government and employers - for each to expand dramatically the number of work experience opportunities. While not quite saying that every student should be offered work experience - which would mean finding up to 300,000 placements - Dearing was extremely enthusiastic about increasing existing numbers. The pressure is now on for each "stakeholder" to take action.

The government has already made a start - even if it has not gone as far as the Dearing committee envisaged. Last month it announced plans to set up eight two-year pilot projects, involving around 9,000 students, to help develop good practice in student work experience. As part of this, Sheffield Hallam University will produce guidelines for managing student work experience in the hotel and catering trade, the largest employer of part-time students. Newcastle University will look at ways of improving the range and coordination of work experience offered by a traditional university and, with Northumbria University, will be developing a joint regional approach. The careers services of Manchester University and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology will work together with other careers bodies on an electronic brokering service linking employers and students, which should eventually be available on the worldwide web.

Influencing many of these schemes is work by the Centre for Research into Quality, based at the University of Central England in Birmingham, which next week publishes its report Work Experience: Expanding Opportunities for Undergraduates at a meeting of the Conference for Industry and Higher Education. The report describes the multiple benefits of work experience for all concerned, focusing on the three main types - sandwich courses, project-linked work experience and term-time and vacation work.

For employers, it says, each of these can bring extra workers full of new ideas and at a low cost. Work experience can also help identify potential new recruits and forge links with higher education institutions which may be helpful for future development.

For students, work experience, as well as possibly boosting their bank balances, can help put theory learnt at university into practice and give an insight into workplace culture and contacts. But it can also help them develop more general skills, such as negotiation, leadership and independent learning, which are likely to be useful both in their academic and professional careers.

For academics, organising and supervising work experience placements can help ensure their work is up to date and relevant to the jobs world.

But the report also highlights barriers to expanding work experience. Chief among these is lack of resources. "In an ideal world, there would be sufficient funds to enable employers to provide students with work experience opportunities, supported by well-funded higher education institutions with full backing from the government," it says. "Clearly this will not happen."

The researchers say employers face costs in time and money when they provide placements. They are more inclined to offer places when they can see the benefits outweighing the costs. But this is rarely easy to assess. Students too may worry about losing out financially, particularly when the government introduces charges for tuition next year. Living and travel costs can prove a drain and a sandwich course often means an extra year of debt. Some may be exploited by employers giving them heavy workloads for very little pay. Others find it hard to balance placements with their academic study. Higher education staff may also find themselves forced to spend time liaising with employers, again without being paid for it.

The report describes "an implicit hierarchy of learning that ranks learning in the lecture hall above all other methods". But at the same time it says there is now competition for work experience opportunities both within and between institutions, with academics and administrators tending to be "precious" about links with employers in case someone steals a contact.

The report suggests burying these differences so that institutions provide a central contact point for employers and better co-ordination of contacts. It also urges academic staff to recognise that all kinds of work experience - even stacking supermarket shelves - can be useful with proper support. A student undertaking part-time work primarily for money may derive all sorts of other benefits, provided he or she receives help in evaluating it. The report suggests looking for ways to link work experience to the assessment process and to develop more flexible course programmes that allow for periods of work on specific projects throughout the year.

Students should aim to develop a portfolio of work experiences, say the researchers, and bear in mind, when choosing a course of study, what they want to do after graduation. They should be aware that smaller businesses can often offer the best opportunities and not just go for a big company name on their CVs. And they should prepare for their work experience.

The report calls on employers to look beyond the financial bottom line and have a longer-term vision of the benefits of providing work placements,of all kinds and for all kinds of students, mature and part-time students included. It recommends that they should use student employees more fully.

Finally, it says the government should recognise the importance of work experience and the costs involved. Ministers should offer tax incentives to employers taking part in placement schemes. And they should monitor the effects of the new fee charges on students' attitudes to work and study.

But the key finding of the report is that work experience is something that demands thought. "Experiencing work is not the same as undertaking a period of work experience," it says. In order for it to expand in a useful way, clear links must be drawn between everyone involved and each must know how they benefit in the immediate and long term. "Experience of work should not be regarded as something that is intrinsically beneficial: something that is somehow good for the soul," it says. "On the contrary, it is a means to an end and it is important to keep the end in sight. The end is the learning that comes from the experience."

Additional reporting by Charlotte Greggains.

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