Let's hear it for the sandwich degree, says Stephen Gomez.
The good old sandwich degree deserves a renaissance. My faculty has offered it in sciences for nearly 30 years and, as placements tutor, I have seen what this route can do for students, staff and employers alike.
Students return from their placement year matured by their experience and their academic performance improves. The faculty's reputation benefits from this upturn and from the stronger link forged with industry. Employers feel they have contributed to educating and training a future workforce. This is not just altruism: firms often use placements to screen prospective employees.
With so much going for it, why has the sandwich degree suffered such a downturn? As someone who interviews students wishing to be exempted from the optional sandwich year, I hear many arguments. Mature students will argue they already have work experience. Students who want a career in medicine or teaching say a sandwich year has less relevance. Most, however, cite the financial pressure of student loans and the lack of "real" academic credit for the year.
Many universities award a full year's credit (120 credits) for the placement. But there is a catch. The credit is "notional". It does not contribute to the final degree beyond conferring the word "sandwich" to the title. There are good reasons why "academic" credit is not attached.
Comparing one work placement with another is a problem set against the more uniform learning experience of students on a taught module. Academic credit is typically defined in terms of learning time, learning outcomes, assessments and levels of learning. How can these "academic" characteristics be mapped onto placement learning?
There are also logistical problems. How can you ensure students are learning the right things at the right level and if it is their work in the first place? This is critical when many academics believe "real" learning occurs in universities only when "delivered" by them.
The funding system is a further disincentive. Students pay half-fees for a sandwich year. This can cause real hardship for those on a poorly paid but otherwise excellent placement. Placement students graduate with higher loans. Their greater employability is not immediately apparent. "Real debt for notional credit" is not a good sales pitch.
My colleague David Lush and I decided to make the sandwich year more attractive. We started by tackling assessment. From next month, all science placement students at the University of the West of England will be eligible for assessment through a module titled "Professional practice in applied science". This is worth 20 level-three credits. Placement students who gain these will need to take only 100 level-three credits in the final year to gain their honours degree. This is effectively one less taught module. The impact has been immediate. Some 78 per cent of students have opted for the sandwich route compared with 60 per cent last year.
The module could not have been introduced without an effective means of tracking, monitoring and assessing placement learning. To handle the diversity of placements and their geographical spread, we are developing a web-based system called profile.ac.uk. This uses a forensic profiling approach to collect and catalogue an electronic portfolio of "evidence of learning".
Students sign a learning agreement at the start of their placement. Their supervisor signs off each piece of learning as a set level of competency is reached. This also verifies it as the student's work. The academic tutor provides assessments and learning-support material, and decides if the evidence is sufficient.
The web-based system is being piloted on bioscience placements, but should soon be available free to places where work-based learning is a feature.
With the government under pressure over top-up fees, it is timely to consider sandwich-year funding. Fees are usually justified on the basis that they have to cover the high costs incurred in administering placements. But given the role the sandwich year can play in delivering many of the "employability" aims of the recent higher education white paper, perhaps the government should consider ways to decrease the debt burden.
Stephen Gomez is principal lecturer in human physiology in the faculty of applied sciences, University of the West of England, Bristol. He won a National Teaching Fellowship this year.