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.
‘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.