Labouring for more experience

October 3, 1997

Work experience is now vital for undergraduates, but are universities properly preparing students for the world of work? Alison Utley reports

Preparing students for employment is not necessarily the top priority of university lecturers, many of whom prefer the intellectual challenge of communicating the finer points of astrophysics, art or history.

But university teaching is increasingly being linked to the world of work and, post-Dearing, academics must face up to their responsibility in meeting the needs of the labour market.

A new survey from the Department for Education and Employment reveals that 85 per cent of students have had some form of work experience by the time they graduate, whether its bar work or a high-level project placement with a top firm.

However, the use that students make of such experience is highly variable,according to Trevor Fellowes, manager of the higher education and employment division of the DFEE. "Universities can play a crucial role in helping students to reflect on their work experience," he said. "If reflection is done well even a bad experience such as sweeping the factory floor can be put to good use."

Mr Fellowes's division is assessing 500 university bids for Pounds 8 million worth of project funding aimed at improving universities' responsiveness to labour market needs. Work experience will play an important part in the project since anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that graduates with work experience are more likely to progress successfully from higher education to employment. But how it can be organised within universities on a much wider scale - one of Dearing's key recommendations - requires a lot of thinking, according to Mr Fellowes.

Organising formal work experience on a large scale is a daunting task for institutions with little, if any, slack left in the administrative system. Most academic departments have experienced difficulty in finding enough work placements for students as employers, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, remain to be convinced of the benefits.

And some difficult questions remain to be answered. If, as many now believe, work experience ought to become part of the academic curriculum, who should assess it? Are lecturers equipped to understand modern business requirements? Can they teach the transferable skills employers want?

Shell UK estimates that the lack of formal work experience on the majority of undergraduate courses is costing British businesses more than Pounds 350 million per year. The company's technology enterprise programme matches university students with small companies for eight weeks during the summer. One recipient, Neil Pentelow from Derby University, went to local firm Alida Recycling.

His reaction sums up the benefits of work experience: "The opportunity to have this level of responsibility and to deal with my own projects could never really be taught inside a lecture hall."

However, dissatisfaction about graduates' lack of preparedness for work is frequently cited by employers, particularly the lack of key skills, poor understanding of the workplace and its culture and the need to tackle a range of jobs within a small business. As large-scale graduate training programmes dwindle, work-ready graduates will be in hot demand.

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