Year after year, graduate recruiters emphasise the weight a good work placement carries in the hiring process. Almost half the companies surveyed for High Fliers Research's 2016 Graduate Market report “repeated their warnings from previous years”, stating that applicants would have “little or no chance” of receiving a job offer without any prior work experience.
Although graduate job competition is not as fierce as it was, with more jobs on offer to graduates this year than ever before, one-third of the estimated 20,798 positions available in 2016, according to the report, are reserved for applicants who have worked with the hiring company before. However, on the plus side, there are now several different ways to find that experience, from pre-university placements to paid internships for recent graduates.
Perhaps most surprisingly, more students are now choosing the oldest option on the list, the sandwich course, which has offered students the chance to combine academic pursuits with an extended practical work placement since 1840. This is despite warnings a few years ago that the model was in decline.
The latest Higher Education Statistics Agency figures bear out that there has been a bounce-back in its popularity. A total of 153,535 first-degree undergraduate students were enrolled on sandwich courses in 2014-15, compared with 113,795 in 2009-10, when over the same time period undergraduate numbers in total have been falling.
Besides piling application letters on top of coursework in the second year, the placement year could set students back an extra £1,800 in tuition fees, so why are more students being drawn to the sandwich course?
Helen Higson, deputy vice-chancellor of Aston University and professor of higher education learning and management, says that as students start to think more about why they should do a degree, the model that gives them the added value of work experience is becoming more attractive.
“For many of our students, their parents didn’t go to university and their families are in quite low-level jobs. A placement year gives them the opportunity to make those connections and build social capital,” she says. “Research I’ve done shows that if you are a less confident, less academically strong student, the placement year improved your degree performance more than if you were a strong student.”
Three-quarters of students at Aston spend a year in industry, including those on non-vocational courses such as English and history, who, Higson says, benefit the most from a placement year.
“An English degree qualifies you for everything and nothing. To be able to use English literature skills, like writing and analysing, in a vocational environment actually takes these studies and makes them relevant,” she says.
‘A new maturity and diligence’
Kate Purcell, a professor of employment studies at the University of Warwick, argues that work placements are most effective when a certain skill set needs to be acquired but acknowledges the soft skills that are on offer, such as teamwork.
She says that her research has shown that, as these types of courses have become increasingly structured over the past 10 years, students with these degrees are more likely to be able to access graduate jobs earlier.
Hesa confirms this in its Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, which shows that sandwich degree-holders have an 82 per cent employment rate compared with 74 per cent for other graduates.
While a sandwich year does cost students more, it does not cost as much as it used to. After the tuition fee hikes in 2012, the cap on placement year fees was half that of a regular year, at £4,500. But this was lowered to £1,800 in 2014-15 owing to concerns about the effect on demand for sandwich courses.
However, each university subsidises this fee to a different extent. Loughborough University, for example, charges £840 for a placement year, while the University of Bath asks for the full £1,800. Meanwhile, Aston University offers scholarships that lower the fee to £1,000 for the year. These reduced fees may make the option of a sandwich year more accessible for some, but students that undertake placements far from home will also face the cost of new accommodation and relocating.
Harper Adams University, a vocational agricultural school where 93.5 per cent of students pay an extra £1,800 to spend 12 months in industry after their second year, is one institution that believes passionately that the model works. The university boasts a 96 per cent employment rate, which is higher than the national average of 93.2 per cent.
Andrew Jones, director of learning and teaching at the university, says that this is “no accident”. By spending a year at the same company, Jones says that students “can take on increasing amounts of responsibility” and benefit that company in a meaningful way, adding that it’s not unusual for students to be hired by the firm that gave them a placement.
“When the students come back, we find they are changed people. They come back with a new maturity and diligence. They work extremely hard because they know how they can progress in their career as they leave university,” he says.
Beyond industry, students learn valuable transferable skills as they apply for placements by approaching the process as they would a job search, preparing for interviews and writing CVs and application letters, says Jones.
Cari Thomas, a fourth-year student at Harper Adams who is training to be a rural surveyor, describes the application process as “very structured”, but it benefited her when applying for graduate jobs to such an extent that she secured a position before completing her fourth year.
“When I started looking for jobs, employers were very interested in what I did in my sandwich year because it means I’m one year closer to being qualified [as a surveyor] than other graduates. When I start, they won’t have to show me the ropes,” she says.
Higson says that the placements offered through sandwich degrees are more beneficial than other work experience stints because the skills learned in the lecture hall and in the workplace can be integrated and built on in the final year.
“Integrated work experience is better, because they’ve had a chance to reflect on what they’ve learned and use it,” she says. With this in mind, Aston has set its sights on enrolling 100 per cent of its student body in a placement year by 2020.
“There’s a much wider cross-section of people going to university,” Higson adds. “If we want to make sure that everyone gets a level playing field...to achieve through university, surely something like a placement year is a really compelling way of doing that.”