Work placement hitch

August 1, 1997

Sir Ron Dearing's vision of universal undergraduate work placements is "logistically impossible", according to a team of researchers sponsored by the Department for Education and Employment.

Sir Ron's committee of inquiry said that lack of work experience was "the graduate recruitment problem most often mentioned by employers". Dearing recommended in his report last week that measures be taken quickly to make work placements, alongside "core skills", a key part of undergraduate education.

The Government, keen to promote such moves, has already taken the initiative, and has commissioned researchers from the University of Central England's centre for quality in higher education to examine ways to expand work placement provision in universities without damaging quality. The results will be published in January next year.

But preliminary findings from the team, to be launched at a conference in November, already identify several serious stumbling blocks.

"To cover everyone there would have to be 200,000 placement opportunities in any given year - that is over five times more than there are now," said Lee Harvey, the centre's director and research leader. According to his co-researcher, Vicki Geall, "this couldn't be met by the traditional work placement system".

Beyond the simple laws of supply and demand, funding would be a major block. "Companies, particularly the small firms, would need a financial incentive, at least at the beginning," said Ms Geall. "In some existing schemes the students are paid, but this is not always the case, and would be difficult in an enlarged system. If courses had unpaid placements, students would be discouraged to join because it would mean yet more debt." Bureaucracy and marketing would also be costly, she said.

Businesses, especially the small and medium-sized enterprises that were cited by Dearing as the growth area of graduate employment, still need to be convinced that undergraduate placements are useful, and not a burden.

Small businesses tend to have limited resources for personnel, poor relationships with higher education and the wrong perception of graduates, the researchers have found.

"It must not be the case that students are simply left there for eight weeks with nothing to do," said Ms Geall.

But successful schemes where undergraduates were actually contributing to a host firm's profit margin, such as the Dearing-endorsed Shell Step programme, tended to be heavily subsidised, and they required detailed "matchmaking" between hosts and students, which would not be practical on a large scale.

Some of the initial ideas from Professor Harvey's research are likely to be controversial.

One proposal envisages a system for structured accreditation of students' part-time and vacation work, which is already seen by many as an unwelcome distraction from university courses.

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