Case Study: University of Hertfordshire

Case Study: University of Hertfordshire
The purpose of this case study is to illustrate our research findings and analysis on placement quality.
The links within the case study will direct you to the relevant sections of the results.

Overview

Commitment to work placements is high on the institutional agenda at the University of Hertfordshire, with the aspiration that by 2020 all students graduating from the University will hold some form of accredited work experience. The central Careers and Placements Service coordinates the majority of placement activity across the University. This single central unit allows coordination and sharing of contacts and processes across the organisation, as well as cross-selling to employers.

“It’s embedded in everything that we do from a strategic point of view, to make sure that all of our students have some form of work experience, because we know it’s going to make them more employable in the long run. So it’s very much top-down and right the way through everything that we do.”
Careers and Placements Service

Managing placements

To manage the sourcing and application process, the University hosts a dedicated application portal, Career Hub, which acts as a central point for publicising placement opportunities, accessible by both employer and students. Employers upload placement vacancies directly onto the system, which are then reviewed by the Placements Service to ensure that they constitute a suitable opportunity and meet quality standards.

The Careers and Placement Service takes an active role to ensure that placements are filled and that enough applications are generated from the University. A variety of student-focused literature and guidance is distributed to students, and weekly placement bulletins are published. Central to the success of this approach is the buy-in of academic schools, particularly course leaders and lecturers, who hold an important role in encouraging students to investigate placements and apply to relevant opportunities.

“To be successful, we have to have good relations with academic staff, because it’s no good the message just coming from us; it has to come throughout the University.”
Careers and Placements Service

To maximise student engagement, the Careers and Placements Service has a student-facing office on each of the main University campuses, located where there is a high footfall of students. Although the benefits of undertaking a placement are felt to be clear, it is still important for the University to take an active role in persuading students to apply for opportunities. It was noted during our interviews that undertaking a placement, particularly for 12 months, was a significant step to take for an undergraduate student , especially when initial consideration of this opportunity starts as early as during the first year. Therefore, breaking out of the ‘norm’ can deter students from pursuing the opportunity.

“When we started university, a group of us decided that we would all do placements. However when it came to applying, my friends weren’t doing one anymore...When you’re in that situation, it’s like, ‛Oh my friends aren’t doing it, so when I come back I’m going to be on my own.’ But if you want to do a placement, you shouldn’t let peer pressure tell you not to do it, because the placement has been so valuable!”
Student

The key to a successful quality placement

1. To ensure a good relationship with the employer and a successful placement, the University aims to provide a continuous service to the employer, providing guidance or support throughout the stages of the placement, from initial advertisement, through recruitment, support on the placement and after it. Visualising the employer essentially as a customer during the process is crucial to securing future opportunities to students. Managing expectations and close account management helps to ensure good outcomes for all parties involved.

2. The student must be supported in their role and carefully managed by the employer. In particular, the employer must take steps to soften the transition from university life to working life, and to ensure that the student understands their duties and company procedures while on their placement. Although the university has a role to play in ensuring that placement opportunities are suitable, the employer holds primary responsibility for this.

“The role involves contacting a lot of different people by phone and email, so it is important that the student is supported when they first start, to allow that relationship between the student and colleagues at the company to develop. Ensuring the student is familiar and ‘shown the ropes’ is also key...this year, our upcoming placement student has started their programme early, and is shadowing the current placement student, which will help to ensure a smooth transition”
Employer

3. The process of reflection after the placement has finished. While a student gain many work-related skills on a placement, the benefit of doing so is marred if they are unable to fully articulate these skills in job applications and interviews.

4. Individual motivation from the student is key as the employer can only provide a challenging and stimulating placement if the student is willing to grasp the opportunity fully.

“Personally I think it’s important to have that willingness to do the placement. They give me so much to do, so much responsibility, partly because I show willingness to do it and that I’m capable. It’s definitely driven by your own motivation and eagerness to learn.”
Student

Benefits of placements

From an institutional point of view, the objective of placement activity for the University is straightforward: to make students more employable. Anecdotally, increased graduate employment prospects are an established benefit of undertaking a placement or work experience.

“We know that if a student has taken a form of work experience that is a quality experience, they are more likely to get a graduate job quicker and potentially with a higher salary….We have employers constantly saying to us, we’d rather employ someone who’s had a period of work experience.”
Careers and Placements Service

In discussion with employers, they confirm that placements can benefit a student’s job prospects, and that in general, having completed a placement gives a graduate a head start over other applicants. In fact, employers value work-readiness so much, that it is highly desirable to re-engage with a graduate who successfully completed a placement at their organisation. Providing placements opens up an access to individuals with higher level skills who are eager to learn to fulfil a useful role in the company. Accredited placements offer a degree of certainty for the employer that the individual will be available for a fixed period of time, and tend to ensure student commitment since the placement will influence their performance on their degree.

One employer highlighted the importance of placement students to their business, and stressed that they are highly important to the organisation from a resource perspective. At this placement, students are required to conduct a great deal of information gathering to construct pre-qualification questionnaires for large contracts.

“The role generally requires a great deal of information gathering during the collation of PQQ documents for large-scale contracts, which is essential work for our business. This is a skill that our placement students are familiar with from their studies, and is absolutely crucial to our business. We could not do without our placement students!”
Employer of placement students

From the student viewpoint, the key benefit of undertaking a placement is the experience gained, and the ability to evidence and articulate this experience to future employers upon graduating. At interview one student explained that the placement provided valuable evidence of skills and competencies that can be drawn upon during a job interview:

“I think that now I’m a lot more confident to go into an interview and talk about real experiences, rather than answering every question with “well at university I did this”...For example when they ask questions about working to deadlines. Being able to use real experiences with mixture of experiences from university as well is really important”
Student

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