NCUB interviewed Aston University Deputy Vice Chancellor Helen Higson about successful student placements.

NCUB’s Quality Placements report identified some of the benefits of placements for students, universities and employers. Your own research has looked at how taking part in a placement can improve a student’s academic performance, why do you think that is?

The key in my view is confidence, reflection and connection. These are all linked to the higher level skills which employers say they are looking for.

The placement in itself helps students make the connection between academic studies and skills needed in the workplace, but also the connections between different subjects to the benefit of the workplace. A placement integrated into a degree will have some sort of assessment which in various forms will encourage students to think about their experience and their strengths and weaknesses and do something about it. Perhaps most important is the findings we found for the less academically strong or confident student – their performance improved the most. Another finding was that the most engaged students did the best – I rest my case.

For those less engaged students and those with lower grades at the start of their placement who benefit more from placements, how do you reach out to them and meet the challenge of engagement?

“Students understand the importance of work experience, but…don’t realise how much more value an integrated work placement can bring.”

So a major learning point for us was that we needed to encourage more students to do a placement. We needed to get them engaged earlier. In another paper we found that students had already decided whether they would do a placement or not by the time they came to university. The engaged were already engaged. So we appointed a pre-arrival Careers Adviser who now works between our Schools Liaison and Careers team.

She spends her time going out to schools and colleges and she has been spectacularly successful. Much of her work has been presenting data based on our research, it is a compelling message that your degree classification will be better and you are far less likely to be unemployed. One linked finding in our work was that all students understand the importance of work experience, but the less informed/engaged don’t realise how much more value an integrated work placement can bring.

How about colleagues, what would you say to another member of University teaching staff to persuade them of the value of having their students undertake a placement?

It has perhaps been more difficult convincing academic colleagues than students. When we began our work we often heard the following from them:

  • We won’t recruit any students, they won’t want to study an extra year
  • We won’t get enough placements

So we have had to engage with academics even more than students. Firstly, we have engaged them in pre-recruitment activity, offering to contribute, with our pre-arrival Careers Adviser, to Open Days. Secondly, we have offered the Careers to contribute to integrated preparation for work experience in modules.

Thirdly, we have worked with them to identify companies they know to approach, or areas where a concerted effort needs to take place to increase placements. This methodology had again had a spectacular effect. In the subject areas where they have embraced this partnership working, the placement uptake has gone up. Now other subject areas want this service too.

Of course it’s important to not just have more students take placements but for them to be successful. How would you define a successful placement? What does it look like, how can we measure success?  Students may go into a placement thinking that the metric of success is receiving a job offer at the end of it.

“Many [students] use their placement experience to get an even better job.”

In my experience students aren’t thinking of a definite job offer at the end – although about a third do get an offer from their placement company. Many don’t take it up because they have found out what they don’t want to do and many use their placement experience to get an even better job.

So what is a successful placement? – four basic measurables which we measure in various ways –

  • Is the student happy with the experience and what they have achieved and gained
  • Is the employer happy with the experience and what the student has achieved and contributed to the company
  • Has the student gained in confidence, ability to reflect and connect  – i.e. have they improved their academic performance
  • Are they more employable – not are they employable (although that’s great), but have they developed valuable skills and attitudes of employability
Specifically looking at Aston, the placement team were winners of the Best University Placement Service at the NUE awards earlier this year. What do you put that success down to?

Yes, our Placements team is second to none – and why? A number of factors.

We have invested in them and they are seen as important in the University. We took the opportunity to do a root and branch structural review. It was painful. Everyone had to apply for their own jobs and we had the opportunity to create focussed teams for each subject area.

We also created two linked teams – one outward looking to companies, the other to students. They are also a very commercially run team – talking to business in their own language. They are also very creative and target driven.

Are there parts of how you organise placements support at Aston that you think could be adapted elsewhere?

Of course I’m not going to give away any more of our trade secrets because while we are very collaborative at Aston, we have a 100% placement target to achieve by 2020. Our structure is fit for our purposes and I think you couldn’t reproduce it totally elsewhere.

Also it is very expensive. No one should be under any illusions, but we believe it is more than value for money for us. There is a lot of discussion around distributed or centralised services. Personally I think that centralised is best because it suits employers best. Universities aren’t always great at looking from an external perspective.

Do you see integrated placements as something that’s likely to increase in future years, with more courses offering them as standard?

I think there will be an increase, but maybe not always in the current form. The advert of Higher Apprenticeships, tailored degrees for companies, sponsored students, enterprise and volunteering placements will bring diversity. So we have to adapt. But the bottom line is that integrated work experience of significant length is measurably valuable.

Professor Helen Higson is Deputy Vice Chancellor of Aston University.

Quality Placements is a NCUB Talent initiative that promotes student placements, internships and work experience that benefit learners, universities and businesses. NCUB research aims to understand the range of work experience activity across the UK and identify the features of a quality work placement, including the Quality Placements Online Report and a study of Computer Science placements for BIS.

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