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We are constantly hearing that the rapidly growing computing industry is vitally important to the UK’s economic recovery and that there is subsequently an increasing skills shortage. I was therefore not surprised to find that most people are shocked to hear that computer science graduates – those fundamental to filling this skills shortage – have the highest level of graduate unemployment six months after graduation.

“What was really surprising was that almost all the surveyed universities reported that they end the academic year with unfilled placement vacancies; computing placement supply is outstripping demand”

The reasons behind graduate unemployment rates are of course complex, but one factor that we know improves graduate employment outcomes are undergraduate placements. So last year we embarked on a research project, funded by the department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), to examine the placement activity going on by computer science students – what are they doing, in what number and of what quality?

Our report released today shows the findings of this research, gathered through surveying 40 Universities across the UK about the quality and quantity of computing placements, and with additional insights from some major technology employers.  

We found that on average 26% of third year computing undergraduates, and 6% across all years, undertook a recorded work placement in 2012-13. This low take up rate may well be a contributing factor to why computer science students are not seeing improved employment outcomes from placements. However, what was really surprising was that almost all the surveyed universities reported that they end the academic year with unfilled placement vacancies; computing placement supply is outstripping demand.

Why wouldn’t students want to take up placement that improves job prospects?

One reason is the type of placement. The majority of placements that were undertaken by computing students in our sample were in their third year, one-year long, and accredited (counts towards a student’s degree) – a traditional ‘year in industry’, often known as a ‘sandwich placement’. Universities reported that computing students don’t opt for, or often even chose to drop out of, placement years because they don’t see the career benefit and simply want to reach paid graduate employment as soon as possible.

Lengthy and complicated recruitment practices were also reported as a barrier to take-up. And although all universities are trying to grow take-up, we discovered that few have performance indicators about the relative effectiveness of their multiple strategies to do this.

Increased collaboration is needed to help remove these barriers. Universities and businesses need to work together to really push the message to students about the benefits of choosing to do a placement and within universities, academic and placement staff must collaborate more to dispel the belief that there is a conflict between academic achievement and work experience.

However, notwithstanding the need to remove the barriers to student take-up of the current offer, the fact that supply outstrips demand also prompts the question as to whether the current placement schemes are capable of satisfying the needs of industry and the interests of students.

Universities are aware that students also undertake short-term and vacation placements and that these are in increasing demand from students and employers, but they are rarely recorded by the university.

“Universities and businesses need to work together to really push the message to students about the benefits of choosing to do a placement”

Additionally, while universities vary in the size and type of company they work with, almost all agreed that they want to grow the market in Small and Medium Sized (SME) sector placements. But universities are already dealing with the administrative burden of most placement host companies only taking one student at a time (the overall employer to placement ratio is currently 1.3 students per company), which would only increase with further involvement of small businesses.

An area of focus for NCUB in 2015 will therefore be on working with universities and others, such as the Tech Partnership, to develop new and innovative work experience schemes to meet these needs, including solutions for universities to increase the volume of placement programmes for small and mid-sized companies that also increase student demand.

The report also looked at the quality of computing placements, as an increase in computing placement quantity alone is unlikely to lead to computing students gaining the increased employment benefits that come with placements.

There does still remain a significant tension between growing the quantity and diversity of placements whilst retaining quality. One way to solve this could be accrediting a wider range of work placement lengths, beyond traditional sandwich placements, and this should be seriously considered as a way to increase the placement options available to computing students and businesses without adversely affecting quality.

As the mediators between employers and students, universities play an important role ensuring quality throughout the placement journey. The report provides valuable evidence from universities on the best indicators of a quality placement: improved academic achievement, personal development and career awareness for the student, and long-term employer engagement for the university. It also includes some excellent examples of best practice from universities, for example from Northumbira University and the University of Kent, that we hope others will share and learn from.

Olivia Jones is project manager for Talent, Enterprise, Development at NCUB.

The NCUB Research Report Growing Experience: A Review of Undergraduate Placements in Computer Science for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skill is available to download now. 

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