The significance of work experience

At an international gathering recently on innovation in teaching and learning, one speaker suggested that no university degree course that did not involve some work experience would soon be acceptable. There was some discussion as to what constituted ‘work experience’: some argued that doing the course work was ‘work experience’, another felt that most students these days took paid work anyway to fund their studies, and a few expressed strong reservations about the whole idea of work experience as a component of academic studies.

This issue has been given a further context by a recent survey in Britain by an organisation called High Fliers Research. According to the Guardian, this is what they found:

‘A third of graduate vacancies this year will be filled by applicants who have already worked for their new employer as an undergraduate, according to a poll of 100 recruiters which underlines the increasing value of internships. The majority of employers said it was unlikely that an undergraduate without any work experience would get a job.’

Academics sometimes argue that university programmes are not about vocational training, and therefore work placements might not seem to be an appropriate ingredient of university studies. On the other hand, universities are well aware that post-graduation employability is a key factor in student choice.

The reality probably is that work placements will become increasingly common across higher education. Dublin City University did some pioneering work in this area, and from its early days required (and still requires) students across all subjects to include a work placement in the formal degree programme, as an assessed part of the curriculum. We considered this to be not just a key marketing tool for the university, but also an important educational support for the students, and indeed a good basis for nurturing industry links. There is no doubt that it greatly assists graduate employability. However, work placements are of value only if they are properly planned, worked into the curriculum and monitored while they are taking place.

Should all universities do this, or is this incompatible with the ethos of some institutions? Do work placements suggest a particular view of education, or do they have general value? In fact more generally, are we sufficiently clear as to what constitutes the general ethos of higher education, and how much diversity of method can there be?

For myself, I have no doubt at all about the value – maybe even necessity – of work experience. But it may be that we need to address this more generally in the context of the changing pedagogy of higher education.

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11 Comments on “The significance of work experience”

  1. wendymr Says:

    This looks like an excellent programme. I’ve become convinced of the merits of co-op programmes over the past few years, in particular from employers who hire co-op students – but have also seen gaps in the system where, in subject areas which are less in demand among employers, the college has a tendency to abdicate its role in coordinating the match to the student (students have come to my agency to look for help in getting a co-op placement, for example).

    The few parts of the INTRA website which were accessible didn’t answer all my questions: how long are the placements for? Are the students paid by the employers while on placement? At what stage in their studies does the placement happen?

    I can’t help noticing, too, that not all of DCU’s disciplines seem to be included in the list of subject-areas shown to employers. What about students taking language degrees, for example? Economics, international relations, culture? Do students in these fields also participate in INTRA? I wonder, too, what sort of challenges a programme like this would face if DCU had programmes in philosophy, theology and other less directly vocational areas.

  2. Tom Lowe Says:

    The skills learned in a conventional undergraduate course represent a subset of those required for the workplace (and often there is little crossover). The value employers place in work experience is testament to this.

    I think whether placements should be offered or not ultimately depends on the institution and course.

    In terms of the institution, whether or not it views itself primarily as a stepping stone to the workplace or not. Never mind the question of third-level institutions marketing themselves to potential students. In a country where undergraduate degrees are mostly paid for by the State, they should provide work experience to shift their role towards that of an engine of growth in the economy as a whole. A good system of work placements will facilitate students in connecting the skills learned in their courses of study with the reason they’re learning them: to contribute in the workplace.

    In terms of the course, as wendymr noted, work placement programmes are not suited to every course of study, particularly those where the only consistent employment outcome is further study or academic research. I would still argue though, that Economics (my own course), has enough consistent employment outcomes to efficiently provide placements to suit a large number of students’ vocational preferences.

    Where there is a clear pattern of employment outcomes after graduation and the skillsets required for these are not represented in the course of study, then there’s a clear case for providing work placement programmes.

  3. Eugene Gath Says:

    In University of Limerick, we have had this since our foundation, but unfortunately in Ireland employers do not have enough positions for students these days. One interesting development is that some employers I talked to would be willing to take on these students but NOT PAY THEM. Given that the students pay “fees” (or whatever they’re called) during their placement, maybe it would be a good investment by the Universities to offer a stipend so they could all still benefit from the experience of placement?

  4. Al Says:

    Great post.
    Work as a practise seems to be a little underdeveloped as a concept.
    While a student will go out for a period of time, it is proper to ask about the nature of the experience, in the sense of how much experience will be gained in terms of becoming proficient or competent.
    It is important to experience the working environment and become part of the team, but it another thing to take on a role and become competent in it.
    I remember talking to the HR Head of a state entity that was due to be decentralised and he said that it would take staff two years at a minimum for be trusted with his most basic operations.

  5. jfryar Says:

    I have no issues with work experience and, on the whole, think its a wonderful idea. I certainly enjoyed my DCU INTRA placement in third-year; many of my friends ended up back with those companies after graduation.

    I would, however, raise one point – do we tend to focus too much on the role of universities to supply ’employable’ graduates rather than on the failure of companies to invest in training courses? I am sick and tired of hearing employers argue that they want new employees to ‘hit the ground running’ rather than say ‘we will provide extensive on-the-job training’.

    Certainly since I’ve moved to England, I have noticed a dramatic change in the attitude of employers and have met more people in a week here doing company-sponsored MScs, IT training, etc than I ever saw in Ireland. Is work experience another way of letting Irish employers off the hook when it comes to investing in their workforce?

    • Those are indeed the questions. Is university education to be seen as something set apart from whatever vocational or professional future there may be for the student, or should it be linked to it? Probably the universities answered that question many decades ago when they started to devise the curriculum for some subjects in line with the needs of professional bodies, as in law, accounting, engineering, medicine etc etc. Also, if we were to ‘sell’ the idea of a university as being totally unrelated to career and vocation, we’d get very few students. However, getting the balance right between professional needs and academic integrity is not simple – but I don’t think that work placements undermine that.

      • jfryar Says:

        Well, I agree but for me the issue is that while university staff wrestle with these dilemmas to create the sort of balance you mention above, employers sit back and wait for applications from graduates.

        Rather than simply soak up the constant pressure from various sources on the university system, I’d like to see more pressure publicly exerted by university presidents on employers to put up (in terms of support for graduate training schemes, work experience, sponsorship etc) or shut up.

    • wendymr Says:

      One of the things employers look for from work experience – and this applies to any kind of work experience – is exposure to and comfort with work culture. So, while of course experience in the relevant occupation is very valuable, employers also see value in the typical student jobs of retail/customer service, food service, perhaps call centres, sometimes labouring work – and all the varied jobs students get in the summer. Experience from employment is made up of different sorts: job-specific skills, transferable skills, and work habits. No matter what kind of job you’ve had, chances are you’ll have got into the habit of coming to work on time, doing the work assigned, following instructions, seeking help when you run into problems, using initiative and solving problems, working with others, dealing with difficult people, communicating, meeting expectations, meeting deadlines, balancing priorities… and so on and so on. When I was teaching, it was often very easy to see which students had had exposure to the labour market and which hadn’t, because of their attitude to their work and time management.

      So, while of course placements or internships in the academic field are valuable (and if employers in the UK could get students who had that, they would love it, believe me! And there are British universities which do that; my other half came through a degree program with a one-year work experience element, and I know someone else who had a similar degree programme – different university, different subject – much more recently), any work experience has value to employers when they’re hiring graduates.

  6. Lyndsey El Amoud Says:

    I wholeheartedly concur with the above posts outlining the value of work placement and I believe that it should, where possible, be something that is offered to every undergraduate student. As part of my research on the SIF project ‘Roadmap for Employment Academic Partnerships (REAP)’, I, along with another colleague in UCC, conducted the first comprehensive national survey on undergraduate work placement in Irish HEIs last year. The survey reveals the scale and scope of more than 400 hundred work placement programmes in undergraduate courses in Ireland. As well as being a quantitative exercise, our work also examined how the development and management of work placement has not been without issue, especially in the economic climate of the last two years or so. Indeed, despite the significant evidence of the benefits of placement from the literature, and from consultation with practitioners in this field, there are areas which require practical and conceptual attention in Irish HEIs. Firstly, there is an absence of commonly accepted understandings as to the nature and extent of placement. There appears to be a lack of agreement on the purpose of placement, whether that is to obtain industry experience, to experience workplace socialisation, to practice specific skills, to learn new skills, etc. This tension must be resolved so that the student’s learning is always the key focus of placement. The type of learning required for the student should then help dictate the details as regards the extent of placement – duration, types of duties, etc. There is also a need for some form of standardisation of norms as regards placement: for instance, there could be a commonly agreed practice in Irish HEIs for identifying the number of credits awarded per placement duration; a common set of guidelines could be produced for employers engaged in the placement process, etc. These issues and the variety in expectations among HEIs as regards placement can be partly explained by the absence of a national placement organisation which is quite striking in comparison to other countries. Given the general acceptance of placements and the increasing emphasis on placement by policy makers, it would seem sensible that those engaged in placement seek to determine a common position on various matters and through this coming together facilitate the addressing of pragmatic issues such as norms and standards, but also critical problems such as student support and the avoidance of student isolation on international placement.

  7. Workplacements are the norm in UL undegraduate degrees, and they are huge benefit to the students, as far as I can see, in almost every area. Making them compulsory produces more problems than it solves, however–there wouldn’t be enough firms in Ireland to handle all of the students with paid placements in one year, for example.

    Eugene’s idea of a ‘stipend’ is excellent, because it detaches the students from the need to find a ‘business’ of some kind. Perhaps students would work with NGOs more, or with communities, or in other less structured areas, but those would be at the fringes. Our students of accounting will still want to work for accountancy firms.

    • Al Says:

      I think there also needs to be a realism about what one can expect from the experience. I was in an A&E recently and watched Junior(?) Doctors on the their first week.
      Lets just say that no one handed them the scalpel or asked for a first opinion.
      Time must be served!

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