Between December 2015 and March 2016 the National Centre ran a survey on the work experience practices and processes of the business community regarding university undergraduates.

Our motivation for gathering original qualitative data was to address the ways in which these practices of employers fit into the student access and participation picture, as well as related considerations for employer use of work experience to enable social mobility and enhance talent supply. The findings from the survey are assessed in our new report released today.

Survey evidence was collected primarily from our business members, while we also sought responses across wider business networks. Of the 58 businesses we sent the survey to, 34 responses were received, giving us small-scale but invaluable insights into their work experience activity for both building on and comparing with existing evidence.

The findings reveal a vast amount of work experience activity. In 2015, the most common form of work experience that university students were taken on for was paid internships, with 9 businesses taking on more than 100 students and an additional 9 recruiting between 10 and 49 interns. Take-on also comprised a range of work experience types, including formal work placements in industry, insight or work taster opportunities and job shadowing.

Businesses offer work experience to students for a host of reasons, including to be ahead of competitors in the talent race and for raising the profile of the business in the graduate recruitment market. Employers consider that work experience improves student employability, builds their transferable skills (all 34 responders strongly agree/agree in each case), and provides a springboard for a job in the sector (33 businesses strongly agree/agree). These findings highlight the significance of work experience for longer-term recruitment and for developing generic competencies which are valued across different businesses.

On the access and participation side, research has noted unequal engagement in work experience, with students from disadvantaged backgrounds being less likely to participate. In turn, this suggests knock-on effects on efficient employer-employee matching, on the breadth of the talent pipeline available to businesses, and on the capacity of work experience to facilitate social mobility by bettering the employment prospects of less-advantaged undergraduates.

In the National Centre’s survey, we find mixed results on access issues and work experience as a social mobility enabler. Twenty-five businesses say a reason they offer work experience to university undergraduates is to spot talented less advantaged students, and 14 businesses state that a channel used to find work experience recruits in 2015 was universities with talented disadvantaged students. On the other hand, exclusive relationships with universities, and targeted recruitment from Russell Group institutions are more utilised channels, with 18 businesses always or often using the former and 15 the latter. Additionally, though 13 businesses consider university advertising as the top channel for finding work experience students, 9 businesses say that word-of-mouth or networks of contacts are the best channel. These findings indicate that there is a long way to go before work experience facilitates upward social mobility.

We ask businesses about approaches they favour for improving access to the supply of students that can be taken on for work experience. The highest ranked action that the sector, including universities, could take is to provide targeted guidance for disadvantaged students as a way of expanding the pool of candidates available to employers – in all 17 businesses rank this as the most effective approach for their business.

Another important method for raising access is a one-stop shop for work experience opportunities provided through an online platform – 13 businesses consider this most effective, particularly those organisations taking on relatively lower numbers of work experience students in 2015. At the National Centre we are developing ‘BrandU’, a platform aimed at opening up student access channels and improving awareness of opportunities, as well as encouraging offers from Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs).

Strengthened involvement of small businesses is central to increasing offers supply and the potential for work experience to impact on social mobility. National Centre research has shown that SMEs offer ‘almost 60% of work experience opportunities’ (pp. 13). Step is running a National Internships Week from 27th June to 1st July to help raise awareness of and encourage application to internship offers in smaller organisations.

In all, the findings from the National Centre’s survey indicate that greater university and business collaboration is needed – including larger employers and SMEs – to ensure that more students engage in and have the opportunity to benefit from quality work experience opportunities, and to ensure that employers are drawing on talent and acquiring the skilled workforce they need from a broad and diverse pipeline.

The Higher Education sector is evolving towards increasing accountability for student employment outcomes through measures including the Teaching Excellence Framework, changing pathways into the sector, and more university and business models of co-joined programmes of learning – such as Degree Apprenticeships. In this context, the emphasis on fair access to opportunities and social mobility in work experience and employment prospects will become ever more important.

Looking ahead, the National Centre will continue to build up and contribute to the evidence base on the extent of talent supply and skills development. One port of call comes from the recent Wakeham Review (2016), which recommends that the National Centre leads on embedding shared terminology on the different types of work experience, so as to better understand their role in and capacity for improving graduate employment.

Another key area to cover is case study examples of best practices universities and employers are using to widen the talent pool and expand engagement in work experience across all students. This can raise awareness of effective strategies. It can also add to the understanding of the significance of work experience for building transferable employability skills, bridging the gap between academic and work-based learning, and more equally improving life chances.