Posted tagged ‘work placements’

Finding graduate work

January 12, 2012

I was talking recently to a consultant whose job it is to analyse and advise on labour market trends, and what he told me might look worrying to some. The jobs of the future, he said, will go to graduates whose studies prepared them most closely for the work they are hoping to get. So does that mean that unless you want to teach it, you should not study (say) philosophy? Perhaps, he said. But on the other hand, what he suggested really matters is work experience. If you go through your education without any employment-related work, you probably won’t get it when you start to look for it more seriously.

Recent research has in general terms backed that prediction. It found that employers now often prefer to appoint graduates who have work experience, often within the same company. The company conducting the research concluded:

‘Today’s report includes the stark warning to the ‘Class of 2012’ that in a highly competitive graduate job market, new graduates who’ve not had any work experience at all during their time at university have little hope of landing a well-paid job.’

It is also my own experience that universities that facilitate work placements for students, or even require them (as my last university did), are providing their graduates with a considerable advantage in the labour market. It is of course the case that many students work anyway during their time at university. But even those universities that would not have considered work placements to be something they should get involved in might want to think again. It is not that all their programmes should become vocational, but that they should allow the newly acquired academic knowledge of the students to be supported by a better understanding of the world of employment. Attractive thought it may have seemed, insulating students from practical employment-related experience is not a good idea today.

The significance of work experience

January 19, 2011

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.

Students preparing for work

February 23, 2010

One of the distinctive elements of the programmes offered by my university, DCU, is that they involve a work placement as part of the syllabus. These placements run under the name INTRA (INTegrated TRAining), and their existence has often conferred a benefit on DCU graduates when they are looking for employment: employers often take the view that work placements prepare students much better for their working lives and make them more confident when commencing work. For a while in the past representatives of other universities occasionally expressed doubts as to the academic and pedagogical credentials of such placements, but those noises appear to have died; in any case, other universities are now, in certain courses, also offering work placements.

The question we might ask is whether work placements offer a rather functional business perspective, and whether students who have gone through them may be encouraged to see higher education purely as a device to secure attractive and well-paid employment. We have no information on the latter issue. On the other hand we may see this as a device to ensure that students gain practical skills which will amongst other things allow them to apply their knowledge to resolve problems.

Student opinions are interesting also. Last year, in 2009, the EU commissioned a survey of students across all EU member states, under the auspices of the Directorate-General Education and Culture and coordinated by Directorate-General Communication. This revealed significant differences between the students, with students in some member states supporting the concept of work placements, while those from some other states were strongly opposed.

Work placement programmes are very hard to establish and very hard indeed to maintain. But if we are right about this in DCU, they provide important opportunities for students to dip into the world of work while still undertaking studies. They also can confer self-confidence and leadership abilities.

It seems to me that whatever views any of us might adopt on higher education principles and values, there is room for work placements as valuable tools for student development. Probably all higher education institutions should consider making them available.