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The placement panacea

  • 11 April 2019
  • By Mike Grey

This is a guest blog kindly contributed by Mike Grey, Head of University Partnerships at Gradconsult.

I spent a decade designing, delivering and managing placement programmes. I still believe they are the single most potent weapon in what has become an employability arms race, and when successful can have a huge impact on social mobility. But they have limitations. I now find myself spending significant time discussing why they are not the employability panacea.

There has been a sharp increase in students enrolling on sandwich courses, typically a four-year course where a student spends the penultimate year in industry, which HESA data shows had increased by 59% between 2009-10 and 2017-18. However, despite ever more institutions and courses offering the option to complete a sandwich placement and more students enrolling on sandwich courses, the number of graduates actually having completed a placement as a formal part of their course remains comparatively low and is even reducing at some institutions in the face of increased competition. Although historical data, an interesting insight coming from the latest LEO data release is the fact that the proportion of students completing a placement has remained relatively static. Excluding part-time students, the percentage of students completing a placement was 8.2% for the 2005/2006 cohort and 8.6% for the 2014/15 cohort.

More positively, the latest LEO data release also reports an overall salary premium for students from sandwich courses of approximately £6000, which remained steady at 3, 5 and 10 years. This will further encourage the adoption of this model and is potentially a powerful motivator for students to follow this route. However, this kind of direct sector-wide comparison is intrinsically flawed because:

  • Many of the courses with higher placement take up rates, such as engineering disciplines, have stronger labour markets and lead to higher salaries on average across all graduates
  • Due to the competitiveness of the placement process, it is likely to be the higher performing students, on average, that secure placements
  • We also know that widening participation students take up placements at a lower rate; there are likely therefore to be a number of socioeconomic factors influencing this salary premium

When looking at direct comparisons at course level, I would predict that in most cases the salary premium is likely to be closer to half of the overall headline figure. Placement experience clearly has a positive impact on salary outcomes but should not be viewed in isolation without considering the wider influencing factors. The host of other benefits of completing a sandwich placement, such as students being able to make a better-informed decision about their future career, are potentially even more valuable but, as with much of the true value of higher education, these benefits are harder to measure.

Outside a select group of established sandwich placement institutions, they remain a distinctly minority sport despite a plethora of outstanding professional practice in this space. They are a great sell to prospective students but, in many sectors and regions, employer demand is a significant limiting factor. Therefore, delivering on expectations can be hugely problematic for the teams of talented and motivated specialists tasked with sourcing relevant roles and supporting students.

Placement schemes are only typically viable at scale if:

  • There is sufficient employer demand within the specific discipline and if employers are prepared to pay students. Placements completed as part of a course fall outside of National Minimum Wage legislation, but unpaid placements create huge issues for social mobility and encourage employers to undervalue students and graduates.
  • The prescribed delivery model offers the potential for employers to get a return on investment for the time and money invested in the student, and if it fits with industry norms. In many technical disciplines shorter placements are simply not attractive to employers due to the training required to get students up to speed with software and processes. Conversely, in other disciplines, such as law, the culture is for employers to offer shorter internships and insights, so sourcing sandwich placements can be extremely challenging.
  • They are properly resourced. Placements schemes are intrinsically resource intensive, involving managing the administrative process, delivering quality employer engagement, preparing students to enter the world of work, supporting and visiting students whilst they complete the placements and assessing the academic module associated with the experience.

What can be really galling for specialist staff charged with delivering these schemes is when other institutions’ marketing rhetoric is swallowed whole. For example, if an institution creates a central placement module which students from any discipline can elect to take, they can technically state in their marketing that all students have the opportunity to complete a placement year. This is an important first step and positive statement of intent, but in isolation it will not deliver the desired impact. Without creating and investing in the required resourcing and infrastructure, developing a culture of placements within faculties, and, crucially, if employer demand is lacking, the conversion rates will often be poor.

Beyond sandwich placements, there are a whole host of curriculum-based, embedded, mass-engagement methods which can be vehicles for career development but reach far greater numbers of students. These include:

  • Embedding real-world projects to deliver equitable career development for your students. These real-world projects are often a particularly important gateway drug for widening participation students who disproportionally self-select out of traditional career development activities and do not have the same access to professional networks or levels of social capital that their more privileged peers benefit from.
  • Develop industry authentic assessments and engage employers to contextualise their relevance to graduate-level professional life.
  • Ensure there are synoptic assessments that encourage students to reflect on their employability development throughout their wider course.
  • Design some assessment processes which reflect graduate recruitment processes, for example students could write up their experiences as six responses to competency questions, each with a strict word limit, or complete a video interview assessment, rather than consistently defaulting to a standard reflective essay.
  • Involve practitioners, employers or community groups in the setting of assessments and as the audience for your students’ reporting.
  • Invite alumni to speak who are applying their skills in a diverse set of sectors to illustrate the non-linear nature of the graduate market.
  • Develop an employer advisory board with a specific brief to inform curriculum design and employability delivery.
  • Build partnerships with graduate developers, the professionals who design and deliver employers graduate training programmes, not just graduate recruiters. Seek to transfer industry best practice into skill development activities within the curriculum.

Placements are a crucial part of the employability agenda, but it is vital to recognise their limitations. There will always need to be a range of localised pragmatic alternatives given there is nothing in the UK higher education system that links number of students enrolling onto sandwich courses to demand in the labour market. Innovative and creative new methods can be harder to package into marketing headlines, but can have a powerful impact, filling the gaps that placements can’t always fill.

2 comments

  1. Ben says:

    “Intrinsically flawed because high performing students get placements”??? HEPI, HEPI, HEPI, what is going on? We must stop these high performers with their intellect and high grades.

  2. Mike says:

    This is not suggesting anything about stopping high-performers achieving their potential. It is merely pointing out that when taking a raw measure of salary premium that it is prudent to consider the wider context and other considerations that influence that differential in salary outcomes.

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