GRADUATES in the UK face a crowded job market with both employers and students recognising that a good degree alone may not be enough to stand out from the crowd. So given the potential benefits of a Year in Industry, why don’t more students opt for placement modules? LITE Teaching Enhancement Project leaders, Alice Shepherd, and, Mark Sumner, explore this question and introduce their final project here.
Our project has investigated reasons why students choose to do an optional Year in Industry (YiI) as part of an undergraduate programme, and reasons why students choose not to pursue this opportunity.
This is not surprising, as we both teach in vocationally focused schools, but even so, there are substantial numbers of our students who choose not to do a Year in Industry.
Is this due to a lack of awareness of the potential benefits, or other reasons?
The media and politicians would have us believe that the prevalence of unpaid internships discourages students from YiI.
Both because of the perception of exploitation, and the practical considerations of how to fund living costs if a placement is unpaid.
In the Business School, virtually all YiI placements are paid, often at graduate job salary rates.
Students typically undertake one long placement during their YiI.
In the School of Design, approximately one third of placements are paid and students typically stitch together a YiI combining shorter paid and unpaid placements.
The potential benefits of a YiI are well-established.
There are multiple studies in different disciplines suggesting that pursuing this opportunity has a positive, if modest, impact on academic performance after returning from placement, and a strongly positive impact on employment prospects.
Our survey and interviews confirmed that awareness of YiI benefits is widespread and student understandings of the benefits are comprehensive.
Interestingly this is true among students who were considering or had chosen to do a YiI and with those who did not choose this option.
The principal barriers identified by our survey respondents were: wanting to focus on university studies; affordability -especially in design; choosing a Study Abroad Year instead, especially in business; and, not feeling the YiI was for them.
While YiI and non-YiI and business and design students interviewed all identified a common set of barriers, what differentiated YiI from non-YiI students was how they perceived and mitigated for these barriers when considering a YiI.
For example, wanting to focus on university studies was influenced by whether students perceived themselves to be behind their cohort due to a gap year, change of programme or being a mature student.
Taking a YiI was perceived to be pushing them further behind their peers.
Some students were not enjoying their degree and did not want to extend their time at university by taking a YiI.
The work needed to complete application forms and multi-stage employer recruitment processes was frequently raised by interviewees.
It was perceived to have a major impact on study and assessment deadlines during their second year studies.
Some students expressed concerns about a combination of these factors.
Affordability was a concern, even if a placement was paid, because of high living costs, particularly on London-based placements.
However, some actively sought London placement opportunities to experience the lifestyle.
while others wanted to avoid London because of living costs, or wanting to remain in familiar surroundings in Leeds or at their parental home while they tried to navigate their transition to the unfamiliar world of work.
Each student appeared to engage in a process of ‘trading off’ between the potential benefits of YiI and costs – financial and non-financial – of pursuing a YiI specific to their personal circumstances.
This process seems to be a mix of conscious and subconscious decision-making where a student’s inherent attitude and confidence to deal with the barriers determines if barriers are seen as an insurmountable challenge or as a temporary obstacle on the journey to positive gains.
The ability to trade off is modulated by a range of external factors.
These included: pre-university employability exposure; peer groups – going with the majority in terms of doing a YiI or not: university employability provision – both YiI specific and more general; industry practice – how much value employers in an industry sector place on pre-graduation work experience; and, influential individuals e.g. parents, friends and older siblings.
As pre-university employability exposure appears to vary so much among undergraduates, we suggest assessment of each student’s employability knowledge and skills is carried through their undergraduate journey.
This would help to identify and signpost appropriate employability support at each level of undergraduate study.
Early, repeated and mandatory employability sessions at programme level, including exposure to employers and academic staff with industry experience are incredibly important in all undergraduate programmes not just the vocationally focused ones.
As one interviewee put it, “You need to force us!”
There is also enthusiasm from both second year students and from returning YiI students for peer-peer contact programmes to help with YiI decision-making.
However, the nature of the contact, e.g. structured mentoring, Q&A sessions, should be tailored for each department depending on resources, the nature of the degree programme and the placement context.
Further work is ongoing at LITE to investigate whether there are differences in demographic characteristics between students who pursue optional opportunities including YiI and those who do not.
Also to develop our understanding of engagement with these opportunities across the University of Leeds.
We encourage similar studies to ours at other institutions and in other subject disciplines, including less vocationally focused ones, to explore the extent to which the barriers and trading off processes differ depending on context.