Take your chance to improve student placements and measure the quantity and quality of work experience across our universities and businesses


Work placements are an important part of university life today. As students pay more for their education they are demanding proof that they will leave higher education with the skills and experience that will make them desirable to employers.

Often these skills are gained through work experience or work placements while at university. Of those students who applied to enter higher education in 2006, 26% undertook unpaid work for career reasons while they studied. A further 21% took on paid work to boost their career prospects on graduation; 17% found structured work placements; 10% had a holiday internship; and almost 10% had a sandwich year experience as part of their degree.

Despite the diversity of work placements, our research has identified some simple features common to placements regarded to have provided a good experience for both student and employer. We know that a high quality work placement is:

Challenging and relevant: The opportunity must be a step up from whatever a student might do in a part-time job, and there must be learning opportunities involved. Quality placements must be linked to either study goals or long-term career plans.

Engaging and motivating: Students should have a good understanding of what they can gain from a placement, and be motivated by the challenge.

A real opportunity: Students should be treated an employee. They should be considered part of the wider workforce and given all the opportunities and support available to a member of staff.

Monitored and reflected upon: To ensure the welfare of the student, and that the expectations of all parties are being met, placements should be properly monitored on. Opportunities for reflection after completion are also important for building a quality experience.

It’s very important that students are given real work to do. As one participant stated: “You get that chance on your placement to make mistakes, and to learn, as the placement person. They don’t treat you as ‘the graduate’, but as an individual, employed like everyone else.”

Another agreed, saying: “The best part was that I was given my own specific project. I wasn’t going in to make the tea or respond to emails and stuff like that.”

Though we know what is desirable, it’s not always easy to design a good work experience. Our conversations with employers and students also identified some major barriers to be overcome. It takes time to recruit students properly into placements; students may have unrealistic expectations or find employers offering such opportunities unattractive; students may lack the skills needed to participate or be unable to attend a placement due to financial or other constraints; and changing business circumstances throughout the year mean that reliable placements can be hard to secure.

We know that the demand is there: Third Sector Internships Scotland, for example, received 5,654 applications for the 211 internships it ran this year. But to date, little information has been gathered by the vast majority of universities about the placements they are offering – less still about the informal or independent placements their students have secured for themselves.

This leaves us with some important questions, which I’d like your help to answer. How should we work together to boost the number of placements that universities and businesses offer together, for example? And do universities and businesses need more guidance to help them?
How should universities collate data on these placements? Is it actually possible to track and manage data on the number and quality of often ad hoc arrangements? And, if so, what role would you like the NCUB to play in doing so?

Whatever your views – and whether you’re a student, graduate, academic or employer – I want to hear from you. Post your comments at the bottom of the blog or email me at olivia.jones@ncub.co.uk

Olivia Jones is the Project Manager for the Talent, Enterprise & Development programmes at NCUB