Sandwich short of a picnic

Funding system must ensure it does not hamper institutions’ ability to offer work placements crucial to graduate employment

January 10, 2013

How many jobs have you had? Sit down and count them, and the tally can be a surprise.

A straw poll in the Times Higher Education newsroom threw up such unlikely former roles as crematorium assistant, florist, rock band tour manager and umbrella salesman.

The least popular was pot washer (as anyone who has endured the associated scalding water and industrial-strength cleaning fluids will understand), while the most professionally relevant was a stint as a science writer at Cern.

Some of these jobs will have been more rewarding than others but, in general, wide experience, even in completely unrelated fields, is a positive in journalism.

In our cover feature, Toby Miller, professor of cultural industries at City University London, considers whether this is also the case in academia.

With stints as a radio DJ (broadcasting a message), ditch digger (putting your back into it) and corporate consultant (enough said), Miller’s CV is packed with useful experience, and it seems unlikely he would have learned as much had he taken a more linear path.

Universities should also be mindful of “messy” career paths, since this is what most students will need to prepare for.

Few graduates outside the most vocational disciplines know exactly what they will end up doing, and many may make their careers in jobs or industries that do not yet exist.

Having said that, employability is an absolutely key concern for students at present, and this is increasingly shaping the public debate around the value of higher education.

In one recent television news package, a young woman who left a highly selective university with a degree in economics spoke of her frustration at failing to find appropriate work.

“I felt like I’d worked hard to get on in life but in the end my degree got me nowhere. It was a waste of time,” she said.

The view went unchallenged, and acceptance that a graduate without a graduate job has been somehow duped seems dangerously common.

One way to improve graduates’ chances is through sandwich courses, which ensure they get invaluable “real-world” experience.

At Harper Adams University, where almost all do a placement year in industry, 98.3 per cent of graduates are in work or further study after six months. This is the third highest proportion in the country, behind only the Institute of Education and School of Pharmacy.

But institutions which use and advocate sandwich courses are facing difficult decisions.

From 2014, it is proposed that the tuition fee charged during a sandwich year should be capped at a figure likely to be 15 per cent of the normal fee - so if an institution charges £9,000 a year (as does Harper Adams) the maximum allowed would be £1,350.

This might seem fair enough but it is well below the £3,000 or so that institutions claim it costs them to facilitate placements - covering everything from maintaining a network of private-sector partners, to health and safety requirements to on-site visits.

If a cap means that it costs universities twice as much to administer sandwich years as the sum they get for the job, the danger is that some will simply pull the plug.

And if that affects employment rates, it’s a price that’s not worth paying.

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