Sandwich club needs more members, argues Quintin McKellar

The UK must build work experience into higher education with the same vigour as it did in the 1950s, Quintin McKellar argues

April 4, 2013

Degrees involving extensive workplace experience are incredibly valuable. Last year’s review of university-business collaboration by Sir Tim Wilson reconfirmed what we have known for decades: that such courses improve students’ academic success and employment prospects.

Sandwich courses, where students typically spend the third of their four- year degrees in a professional placement, first emerged in the 1950s amid concern that UK graduates often settled slowly or badly into industrial careers (for which the Soviet Union was producing 20 times as many recruits).

But in recent years the traditional sandwich placement has been in decline. According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, only 7.2 per cent of full-time UK undergraduates had a placement year in 2009, compared with a slightly healthier 9.5 per cent in 1999.

Apprenticeships followed a similar trajectory in the latter half of the 20th century, plummeting from 250,000 in the mid-1960s to just 53,000 in 1990. Yet since then there has been a remarkable turnaround, with 520,000 apprenticeships starting in 2012.

The apprenticeship example demonstrates that bringing about a similar resurgence in sandwich places would require sustained political effort. Apprenticeships have been aided by political consensus about the importance of practical, vocational education over the past decade, a consensus that has informed the policies of both Labour and coalition governments. You need only to check MPs’ Twitter feeds to see the importance they attributed to the recent National Apprenticeship Week, for example.

Apprenticeships have also benefited from awareness-raising initiatives. The National Apprenticeship Service, launched in 2009, has a website that enables employers to advertise jobs and allows individuals to search and apply for live vacancies. A similar national site dedicated to student placements that brings together the disparate sources of information currently available, coordinated across the sector, would encourage more take-up.

Such a site would enable students to search for opportunities near home (understandably, most of the vacancies advertised by university careers and placement offices are located close to campus). It would also tackle the current mismatch between the distribution of students studying particular subjects and employment hotspots for graduates with those qualifications. The local businesses in a university’s environs may be able to offer its students enough placements to go around, but not necessarily ones that match their skills and interests.

To incentivise the delivery of university placements, the government should replicate its support for growing apprenticeships in small and medium-sized enterprises. Currently, businesses with fewer than 1,000 employees receive £1,500 for each of the first 10 apprentices they employ. A similar scheme for placements would help to meet some of the costs - such as supervision - that act as the main barrier to SMEs’ engagement with sandwich courses.

It would also diversify the placement options available to students, making them more attractive. At my university, less than 40 per cent of our placement students are with SMEs (larger businesses have the infrastructure and capacity to embrace them more easily). Yet the majority of graduates will work in SMEs and for those interested in setting up businesses, gaining direct experience of what it takes to run a successful small company would be invaluable.

Finally, like apprentices, placement students should be guaranteed to earn the minimum wage from their work. Students are eligible for much smaller student loans during their sandwich year, so unless they are adequately paid, many are currently able to take 12 months out of their studies only if they can find placements close to home.

At the very least, universities should only advertise placements that offer the minimum wage. Parliamentarians should also consider amending minimum wage legislation so that it includes sandwich students. This may, of course, affect supply, but you have to question the quality of the placement - and the placement experience - if employers are unwilling to pay £6.19 an hour.

Participation levels for sandwich placements will not be increased overnight, and much of the onus is on individual institutions to get course design and marketing right. But the fall and rise of apprenticeships offer us hope that concerted effort from universities and policymakers can re-establish sandwich courses as the programme of choice for many ambitious students.

As the prime minister regularly says, we are in a global race. If we want to compete with the economies of the future, the UK needs to build work experience into higher education with the same vigour as it did in the 1950s.

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