What you know is important, but so is where you've worked

A university’s links with industry, providing placements and internships, are increasingly important to students and form a key indicator in our survey. David Matthews explores this fast-evolving area

April 25, 2013

With the economy still on the rocks and students paying up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees, graduate employment prospects have never loomed larger as a concern for universities.

Institutions are therefore keen to build good connections with industry to help students gain experience and successfully enter the world of work - but with so many ways of doing this, each with its own advantages and drawbacks, what should they do?

More than one in five of those surveyed in last year’s Sodexo-Times Higher Education University Lifestyle Survey said higher fees would mean they would need to spend time doing work experience or an internship. Fifty-six per cent were worried about their employment prospects, up from 46 per cent in 2010.

But given that the survey also found that getting a 2:1 or above was a major concern for almost three-quarters of students, and that nearly seven in 10 were worried about balancing work, academic and social commitments, there could be concern that adding industry placements to the work of undertaking a degree could overwhelm some.

The classic industry connection is the work placement or internship: a university builds up a reputation with employers that its students will perform well as interns and, hopefully, as fully employed graduates.

The London School of Economics and Political Science is ranked in first place in this year’s THE survey for good industry connections, and has a formidable reputation for getting its students placements with major London financial and consultancy firms that offer highly paid jobs.

Around 600 students took up placements with such firms last year out of a total full-time student body of around 9,300, explains Jenny Owen, director of LSE Careers, and many more will have undertaken work with charities, non-governmental institutions and other organisations.

“LSE Careers runs a wide variety of events, seminars and workshops aimed at aiding students find work experience,” she says.

The LSE has its own employer engagement team which encourages organisations to create internships specifically tailored to the university’s students. An internships fair is also laid on for students seeking a suitable placement, and students who have already completed a placement with a particular company are on hand to offer advice to potential interns.

Given the weak state of the British economy and ballooning student debt, more students have been using the careers service in recent years, Owen says, but cautions that “you only get one shot at your degree, whereas you have the rest of your life to work”. “My advice to students would be, always ensure that whatever experience you undertake complements rather than competes with your academic study,” she adds.

Aside from the time they absorb that could otherwise be spent studying, internships are often unpaid, making them less viable for students who need to earn money during the holidays or who lack accommodation near their workplace.

Last year’s Review of Business-University Collaboration, by Professor Sir Tim Wilson, former vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, recommended that universities use money set aside for widening access to pay students in such placements, rather than “condone a policy that could inhibit social mobility”. This may ameliorate the problem but for now, unpaid internships appear here to stay.

Sandwich years, in which students are placed in industry for a year as part of their course, overcome many of the problems of internships, say advocates. At the University of Surrey, which was ranked joint second for industry connections in this year’s survey, 50 to 55 per cent of students (excluding those doing nursing) take a sandwich year, which Surrey calls a “professional training year”.

Neil Ward, who leads Surrey’s sandwich-year programme, thinks that normal internships are “fundamentally very short [and] unfunded”. They are an attempt by universities to comply with the Wilson report’s recommendation that every student have access to a work placement, but, in reality most institutions “are not really engaging with it”, he thinks.

Employers who take on Surrey students are sought out and vetted by the university, he explains, and have to sign up to a list of workplace standards. As a result, students “never” have to do the menial tasks, such as filing and tea making, that are a common experience for interns.

Having a student in a workplace for 12 months acts as a “positive way of screening employees”, he says, and for many it works, as around 40 per cent of students who do sandwich years end up working for their employer after graduation.

The majority are paid, he says, although for some courses it is more difficult to find employers willing to offer a salary - for example, for politics students working at the House of Lords. Ward stresses that sandwich years can be arranged for students of less directly vocational subjects such as English literature, who can be placed in journalism or libraries, for example.

The Wilson report concurs that the link between a sandwich year and employment is a strong one, and David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has called for them to be more widely adopted by universities.

Yet the proportion of full-time students doing sandwich years has fallen from 9.5 per cent in 2002-03 to 7.2 per cent in 2009-10, with the majority of these courses clustered in a handful of institutions, the report says. Students are often put off by the time pressures and uncertainty of finding a placement, peer-group pressure to opt out, and the difficulty of finding an employer near their university or parents’ home, it adds.

Another potential barrier to sandwich years is that, from 2014-15, the government will cap the amount universities can charge at 15 per cent of their normal tuition fee which is, according to Professor Ward, simply not enough.

“We have to pay for administration and academics have to go out and visit the students on placement,” he explains.

Another route universities have taken is to invite industry directly into the lecture theatre. At Glyndwr University, for 2012-13 all courses will have been at least partially designed by employers. The vice-chancellor, Michael Scott, has argued that “the whole notion of university is changing”.

Glyndwr allows employers to design courses that meet their specific needs. Recycling and biomass firm UPM needed to replace an ageing workforce coming up for retirement at its Shotton paper mill in northeast Wales, but, according to training manager Peter Forsyth, there were no local colleges or universities that taught the right combination of skills.

“It was at this point that we approached Glyndwr and asked could they help,” he explains, and together the company and Glyndwr created a bespoke engineering foundation degree.

Other programmes have gone even further in turning university into training for a specific employer. The accountancy firm KPMG runs schemes with Durham University and the University of Exeter where students work towards a four-year accountancy degree with their tuition fees paid by the company, earn a salary during their period as a student, and are guaranteed a job on graduation.

David Willetts has urged other companies and universities to study the concept carefully and hopes that similar partnerships will flourish following government reforms to the higher education system.

Amid this scramble by universities to impress businesses with their students, some critics have questioned how far the sector should pursue the employability agenda. Anthony Grayling, master of the private New College of the Humanities, has stressed that one of the aims of his new £18,000-a-year college is to teach a broad, liberal arts curriculum where students learn for the sake of learning, rather than for other instrumental reasons.

“At a time when the government devalues the humanities and treats higher education as a vehicle for training, any attempt to promote the liberal arts should be welcomed,” Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, has written in defence of the college.

But even the NCH has a “professional programme” as part of its undergraduate courses, which teaches students areas including financial literacy, marketing, project management and “technology and the world of work”.

This year’s rankings show that good industry links and “pure” scholarship are not necessarily mutually exclusive: the universities of Oxford and Cambridge do not run sandwich years, nor have they invited in business to redesign their courses, and yet students rated them joint fifth for industry connections.

The fortunes of the universities ranked in the top five for industry connections varied considerably in 2012. The number of accepted students at the LSE was up by 11.4 per cent, whereas at Surrey the number was down by 16.1 per cent, according to statistics from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. A good reputation for industry connections may be a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of success in the new higher education market.

Regardless, universities are investing in this area despite a squeeze across the whole sector. According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the number of student welfare workers, careers advisers, vocational training instructors, and personnel and planning officers rose by 5.1 per cent between 2009-10 and 2011-12, a substantial rise when most areas of employment in universities saw numbers fall. The race to build links with employers, it would seem, is now a top priority of much of the sector.

Case studies

James Archer, former LSE MSc student in political economy, now a materials industry analyst at Visiongain

A masters student at LSE, I graduated in December, which was quite a difficult time to enter the job market, seeing as most graduate employers focus their recruitment drives around autumn.

As such, the jobs available tended to require immediate starts, unlike the traditional graduate employers who tend to take all their graduates on at one specific time of the year. This meant that jobs became unavailable very quickly, so the LSE careers service provided an extension to my job search, as I would frequently receive emails from the team detailing potential opportunities.

The three-month internship offered by Visiongain and partially funded by Santander was one such opportunity. Having negotiated my way through the interview process, I am in my first week of the job and so far enjoying working life.

Kenny Finnegan, BEng from Glyndwr University

The Glyndwr automation, instrumentation and control foundation degree provides a situation whereby students who wish to learn about control and automation can do so in a professional set-up with a skilled set of lecturers who mostly come from industrial backgrounds so know what industry is like.

The lab at Glyndwr helped with the simulation of an industrial setting that helped students liken what was taught in the classroom to real-life industrial control situations. As I began as an apprentice I appreciate the need to test your skills within a controlled environment, as sometimes the thought of shutting down a plant can be daunting.

In this controlled environment it was easier for some of the younger students to test their skills without the fear of doing any damage. Although it was a controlled environment, the equipment provided was like- for-like as it would be in industry, which also helped.

I found the course very helpful. The tutors really go the extra mile when you need their help.

An opportunity arose after completing the FdEng to go on and complete a BEng. With the help of the tutors and the set-up at Glyndwr I achieved a 2:1 in the BEng, which I was thrilled about.

Justine Kharbanda, University of Surrey, law

While working as a market analyst intern at Microsoft on my placement year, I had the opportunity to gain real-life practical experience and to work with inspiring minds. I learnt to have confidence in my strengths and admit weaknesses, which led me to understand that even though I am studying law it does not necessarily mean I have to pursue a legal career.

By the end of it, I had gained a good understanding of the business, built up valuable contacts and was running my own projects, something that can only be accrued over a year’s placement. After a review in January, my manager helped me plan my next six months to ensure we both got value out of the rest of my year.

Coming back into my final year, I felt motivated and equipped with organisational and time-management skills. Most importantly, it gave me an edge in terms of future employability, having obtained an interview for a graduate position at Microsoft.

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