The student experience lies at the heart of the modern UK university, with institutions vying to offer students the best in teaching and learning opportunities, research-driven expertise, top-of-the-range facilities, and excellent support services. But the one thing students really need in the competitive marketplace into which they will graduate is also the hardest thing to provide – and that is, experience in the workplace. While many students now hold down jobs alongside their degrees, a formal, university-run system of work placements can help students acquire higher-level, well-structured experience that is targeted to both their current learning and their future employment aspirations.
Placements bring many benefits, not least to students who can acquire invaluable, hands-on experience, often greatly improving their chances of employment after graduation. Placements can offer students a chance to dip their toe into a particular area, providing them with key information about their aptitude and abilities, and helping them make informed decisions about career direction. The long-term sustainability of subject disciplines can also be strengthened by providing targeted placements which help create success stories for employers, which in turn can attract applicants to the field.
Placements also have beneficial effects for universities, feeding into the NSS by augmenting the ‘student experience’, and boosting the employability / graduate earnings statistics that are a key indicator in the newly established Teaching Exercise Framework – all of which has implications for an institution’s overall ratings and, in the longer term, financial health. Building robust connections between employers and university through a placements system also strengthens local and regional bonds, at the same time as addressing the university impact and outreach agendas.
Put systems in place
Even if your university does not have a central placements system, schools or departments can build robust arrangements from the ground up. A placements officer with close links to the subject can be key to ensuring that opportunities are developed in as targeted a manner as possible, and with specific student learning outcomes in mind. Placements officers can also maintain university-employer placement relations, formally document placement processes, and undertake periodic reviews.
Add value to your placements
Universities need to demonstrate the value of placements to both students and employers, by providing some sort of accreditation for them in student learning (making them part of a module, for instance), and by ensuring that students are properly equipped to undertake placements before they begin. Host organizations will be able to provide information on the sort of transferable skills and capabilities they look for in their employees: in turn, universities can provide preparatory skills-based training to enable students to make the most of their placement on the ground. Such preliminary training can also be a good opportunity to remind students that while they are on placements they are in effect ambassadors of the university, and should at all times behave in a way that is in accordance with this responsibility.
Safeguard your students
The university has a responsibility to safeguard students while they are on placements. Students should be made aware that at all times they remain members of the university, and that in the event of problems with the placement their first port of call is the university, and not the host organization. University support services must be prepared to offer a range of support to students on placements, whether logistical, financial, training, or mental and physical health support.
Look within the university
Universities themselves can serve as a diverse and valuable source of placements, offering students training in a number of administrative, archival or technical-based roles. Universities might also consider offering placements to their own undergraduates on a rotating basis, allowing students to acquire a range of experience across a number of different areas of interest and expertise in the manner of student doctors. For instance, students might benefit from short placements across IT services, central administration, library, estates, planning, and other areas.
Don’t forget postgraduates
Postgraduates need enhanced employability options, and in turn, are often more attractive to employers for their greater experience and skills. Consider ways in which your own research might help postgraduates gain invaluable hands-on experience, by building placements into research grants – either to work with external employers, or to work with you and your colleagues, gaining valuable hands-on academic experience.