We are pretty sure that students who combine their studies with paid work, work placements or unpaid work, find that these experiences help them achieve their goals; the Futuretrack study provides us with real evidence that such experiences positively impact on student outcomes. 

Futuretrack is a six year longitudinal study, tracking the career development of the 2006 cohort of applicants to HE, funded by HECSU and carried out by the Institute for Employment Research at the University of Warwick.  There are several reports, summaries and conference presentations on www.hecsu.ac.uk

But the way the story unfolds is a little more complex… which for brevity we will aim to simplify. There is evidence that early background characteristics affect school attainment, that in turn affects A level results (and UCAS scores), which in turn affects choice of institution and subject and ultimately leads to entry to the labour market.  So whilst family background does not lead to a particular job – there is a relationship.  What we wanted to know is whether work experience whilst at university mediates this relationship.

Using Futuretrack data we describe students’ participation in a range of different types of work experience in some detail.  We found that females and older students were more likely to do paid work during term-time and that those from lower socio-economic groups were more likely to work for longer hours than those from more affluent backgrounds. Depressing perhaps, but not unsurprising.  Students move into and out of work during their studies: some undertook paid work throughout the period of study (25 per cent); others did not undertake paid work while studying (15 per cent) and most move into and out of paid work in response to changing pattern of constraints and opportunities (60 per cent). Just around a third of students did unpaid, voluntary work.

“It really does matter that universities and businesses work together to provide opportunities for students; there is much to be gained” 

Many students did structured work-based learning which Futuretrack categorises as work placements (17.5 per cent), vacation internships (10.3 per cent) and sandwich years (9.5 per cent) and other in-curricular projects, etc., although these were not evenly distributed across all institutions or subjects. For example, sandwich years tended to be experienced by students of business studies, architecture/planning and engineering. Those undertaking vacation internships had the highest levels or prior achievement whilst those taking work placements were more likely to have non-standard or lower levels.

But does this matter in the end..? Yes it seems so. 

Following a bit of fancy statistical footwork (regression analyses) and controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, family background characteristics, prior level of educational achievement, subject and institution type we found that any type of work experience (especially both paid work and structured work-based learning) improves outcomes and has considerable positive impact on pay; achievement of a 2:1 or First class degree; report of self-confidence and also reduces the likelihood of unemployment (see Figure X).  More information is available in the report which is one of a series of four (the others focussing on Drop Out; Studying Whilst Living at Home; and Deciding to Undertake Postgraduate Study).

So it really does matter that universities and businesses work together to provide opportunities for students; there is much to be gained.

Jane Artess is Director of Research at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit 

Find out more about NCUB’s Quality Placements initiative

What do you think? Comment below or tweet us @NCUBtweets.
Blogs that may interest you:

From summer placement to best intern nomination
How do you know if you’re offered a high quality work placement?
Graduate Employment: UK students still lack emotional intelligence
What do businesses mean by ‘work-ready’ grads?
Employable graduates depend on more than just an expansion of the university system