Providing work experience for all undergraduates in line with the Dearing recommendations would mean an estimated five-fold increase in the number of placements available - an unrealistic prospect. But Leeds University geography students are pioneers in a scheme that allows them first-hand experience of taking business decisions, solving problems and making presentations - all without leaving campus.
Small groups of second-year students were forced to make key business decisions under pressure. Within three hours, they had to produce a five-year plan for a chemical processing company to improve production while minimising pollution. The case study was based on Seatons, a Humberside company which has successfully implemented a new strategy.
"What I enjoyed most was that it was a real example. It wasn't just some hypothetical situation,'' says student Kara Owens. "In essays, you weigh up the pros and cons, and leave it open ended, but with this, you had to prioritise things, and say when they were going to happen. And you were confined by a budget which was true to life. It was really helpful to be put under pressure to make a decision.'' There was no right answer among the eight scenarios the students were given: the aim was to justify the chosen strategy.
"Instead of sitting back and relaxing, you had to take some responsibility,'' says student Struan Coad. "But you definitely had to make compromises. The teamwork was valuable. It's arrogant and stupid to say 'I know'. You listen to other people and then come to a conclusion.'' Other students confirmed their new pragmatism about the world of work. "Money is not always the major issue - having the leading edge over another business can sometimes be more important than profits,'' said one.
The move is part of the Context initiative, coordinated by Leeds with the Careers Research and Advisory Centre. A national network, it brings together academics and employers to promote simulations and case studies.
"The students see the kind of skills employers value, and what skills they themselves might need. There's a kind of penny dropping that says 'Now I understand why, just because I've had a good idea, that's not the end of it. I have to persuade those around me'," says project manager Maggie Boyle of Leeds' teaching and learning support unit.
Pauline Kneale of Leeds' geography department adds that the project develops listening skills as much as anything else. "The nature of the problem they have to solve is not really the issue, it's the process. It's making them think more realistically about what happens in business. And it's very interesting to watch them interacting and becoming more confident about the way they present their arguments.''