There are plenty of options for student work-related learning beyond the “gold standard” sandwich year or placement

Mark Peace convenes some fresh thinking on the diversity of learning opportunities that can constitute meaningful work-related experiences

Mark Peace is Professor of Innovation in Education at Manchester Metropolitan University

Can we speak candidly, of a moment particularly triggering to those of you leading employability services? It is, of course, that in which a commitment to “work experience for every student” began to surface across university education strategies.

It was, of course, a commitment as well intentioned as it was practically misguided. Across the sector it was quietly jettisoned or watered down. But not before it manifested all manner of distorted chimeras and mutated definitions of “placement experience”, as staff panicked by an impossible KPI responded in desperate performative ways. You got a part time job in Asda? Yep, retail logistics. Visited the bank? Yup, definitely financial management experience. Bought a Starbucks? Procurement it is.

The challenge here was with both supply and demand. Genuinely enhancing placement-like experiences don’t exist at volume. But the capability and desire of students to take up opportunities also has limits.

It’s easy to get fixated on these practical challenges. I think we should be asking deeper and more existential questions. The sandwich year is positioned as our gold standard; the sector’s point of reference against which scalability in experience-led learning is imagined. But, as I’ve rehearsed in an earlier Wonkhe article, I think there are risks in outsourcing student development to spaces that aren’t overtly educative. Moreover, I think the whole endeavour of situating experiential learning as a function of employability misses a beat in capturing the full range of its potential impacts.

A richer, more scalable alternative might be possible, if we let go of the placement as a constraining template. As part of work as the Institute for Experiential and Skills Based Learning (IESBL), we are seeking to support the sector in mining these potentials – through a broader mission to energise experiential learning.

On Tuesday 26 March, we’ll be holding a symposium at the University of Leeds to support these conversations – and we’d like to encourage a broad array of staff to come along!). Ahead of these, our contributors share ways in which we could untether our thinking on placement-based learning and find new approaches.

Make your core educational offer more porous and integrative

Beverley Gibbs, Director of the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology

Work placements work best where there are porous boundaries between the student, the university, and the employer. Too often, our expectations of placements are too low, and compartmentalise in unhelpful ways. Fully realising the potential of placements requires ongoing dialogue, and structured collaboration with the student at the centre – and a proper interaction between our delivery and its mobilisation.

The Dyson Institute’s whole model is founded on integration between an academic path, employment, and personal development. Throughout the course of study, we persist in pursuing as much integration as possible because we know how easily student needs can be lost between university and employer, and because every day we see our students and graduates thriving.

Lift the contribution to education of your technical services

Sam Heitzman, Technical Specialist, Manchester Metropolitan University

The contribution of third-space educators like technicians are often left in the background of how universities do education: as staff “supporting” the academic mission. But we have so much relevant expertise to contribute. By their nature, technical service staff hold close-to-practice experience – and our work orients to skills and application. Welcoming this expertise could open a whole range of exciting and work-relevant opportunities for students to learn – without even having to look outside the university for placement.

At Manchester Met, I’ve been supported in just these ways, with the autonomy to lead challenging, immersive, hands-on experiences. I lead our Matchday Live sports broadcasting project, in which interdisciplinary groups of students collaborate to live-stream university sports events. My students gain a whole range of industry-relevant technical skills – but also a sense of engagement and ownership over their learning.

Bring clarity to how we talk about alternative approaches

Shantha Shanmugalingam, Experiential Learning lead, Group GTI

The appetite in the sector to go beyond the traditional placement is energising – but we are limited by how we talk about newer types of experiential learning. Placements, internships and apprenticeships have a cache with students and employers. Other experiential learning has some way to go to build this – often because it is small and atomised; “hidden” in pockets of institutions. Without finding agreement on names, it takes longer to recognise the value of this kind of experiential learning, harder to define pedagogies and quality frameworks.

Group GTI helped create the IESBL to address these sector wide barriers. To help the sector surface innovative practice, build the evidence base further and to establish frameworks. Through our work on experiential learning products, we have collaborated with educators and employers on names for distinct types of experiential learning types as well as a term for the collective (i.e. are these projects, courses, programmes or opportunities?). This needs to feed into a wider conversation, one that unlocks the door to scaling opportunities for all students.

Build authenticity not just employability

Juliette Wilson-Thomas, Senior Lecturer, Manchester Met

Externally engaged learning experiences tend to be positioned in relation to employability – but the benefits can be much broader. Utilising more project-based learning with partners offers the opportunity for students to be more active in their engagement both with university and the world beyond it. There’s a sense of legitimacy that comes with that that speaks to some of the sector’s big anxieties around things like belonging, and the successes (including employability) that this leads to.

In my work leading a Foundation Year at Manchester Met, I draw heavily on project-based pedagogies precisely because of the ways in which it delivers authenticity to students who are minoritised and who have often experience imposter syndrome. I’ve found that the “atmosphere” projects create (particularly the balance of structure and space) allow them to build friendships, networks and positive tutor relationships. It also undoes some of the narrow ways in which schooling creates a platform for success – enabling students to access feelings of competence and achievement that they might have been previously denied.

Don’t leave structural barriers to engagement as an afterthought

Karen Burland, Academic Lead for Student Opportunities and Futures, University of Leeds.

The notion of a pure placement experience is really enticing, but there are obstacles that students face when thinking about whether a placement is for them: Can they afford the costs or commitments of time (amongst other life demands)? Are they confident they “fit”, and that their needs will be met? What will happen to their existing connections to a community of study if they take a year out, and so on.

These concerns become an obstacle for students and are rarely considered in the design of activities. We presume the traditional placement model is the best way, yet these challenges of inclusivity and accessibility cannot be easily accommodated within this kind of model. As we rethink the ways we can support students for their working lives, we should flip this and start with ease of engagement as a first principle, questioning whether the traditional placement is the best way to prepare students for work. Here at the University of Leeds we are creating a sustainable and supportive infrastructure of expertise, guidance, training, and resources to inspire and enable inclusive approaches to a spectrum of experiential learning opportunities within the curriculum.

Skill development in the subject, not just the workplace

Kate Daubney, freelance consultant in education, careers and employability strategy

For academics in any subject which does not see itself as aligned to a specific profession or career, the entire business of placement can seem meaningless and even alienating. Perhaps we can reframe placement (and employer engaged learning) through the lens of subject engagement – as an opportunity to contextualise and problematise knowledge?

In doing so we enable students to understand and explore what it is to be a scholar of that subject.

This goes far beyond simply reframing a dissertation as a research skills placement, to the creation of projects for students which specifically enable the complex exploration and application of transferable skills within and across subjects. These might include asking students to create models rather than just applying them, to source new evidence to construct alternative narratives, to explore applications of a theory in other disciplinary contexts, or to explore how skills of problem definition impact skills of problem-solving.

Lean into the relevance of the virtual

Jane Hallett, UK Managing Director, Practera

How we work has changed fundamentally in the last four years. Perhaps it’s time to change the way we think about placements. The surge in online and hybrid work trends (which Nick Bloom of Stanford describes as the largest economic change since World War 2) has made flexible and virtual approaches more relevant as work-preparing experiences. Potentially, they also offer something more scalable, and more integrated as reusable group-based projects.

At Practera, we’ve been working in partnership with the sector to create exactly these kinds of experience. We’ve observed not only the ways in which they build confidence to work in these new context – but also their capacity to engage a broader range of students, particularly those who are neurodiverse, disabled or experiencing mental health challenges. Or, indeed, any student who isn’t quite ready to be thrown into the daunting independence of a full placement, or who is legitimately averse to losing their connection to their core cohorts. They allow us to curate a more overtly educative approach – speaking to Mark’s concerns about outsourcing in full placements – and to respond directly to some of the recent Wonkhe observations on anxiety as a barrier to student engagement.

Use partnerships to drive rich, skills-oriented in-curriculum delivery

Lisa Trencher, Senior Lecturer (Fashion Business), Manchester Metropolitan University

We do ourselves a disservice by reacting to the challenge of developing real-world skills with a knee jerk resort to placements. Universities are more than capable of delivering rich and impactful skills-oriented learning in ways that are more scalable, and more inclusive. If we can make ourselves really listen to our employer partners, we can do this in authentic and contextualised ways.

My role in Manchester Fashion Institute has allowed me to explore exactly these possibilities. For instance, it has helped us to notice data literacy as both a gap in our students’ confidence, and an opportunity to build their distinctiveness in the employment market. We’ve responded to this with targeted in-curriculum and extra-curricular opportunities to develop these competences with skills courses from Excel to big data, and to draw in partners to give this richness and real-world relevance. It’s a more targeted approach, that also builds students perceptions of the value of their university experience

Focus on the “being” rather than the “doing”

Cassie White, School Employability Manager & Rachel Heyes, Associate Director Employer Engagement & Placements, Nottingham Trent University

Committing at an institutional level to the benefit of “work-like experience” – and insisting, strategically, that this happens within the curriculum facilitates more equity and fairer access for students. It can also proliferate innovation, as staff reflect and draw together pedagogic practice, career development and authentic learning, and curriculum design.

Our Developing with NTU framework has responded to the outcomes of this approach, positioning a broader sense of what we want our students to experience and why. It combines understanding and navigating employability with an emphasis on whole person development – drawing in emphases on developing social capital, belonging and agency as critical components of employability learning.

Recognise the hidden administrative burdens

Mike Grey, Director, Gradconsult

To deliver experiential learning with external partners has a lot of hidden time sinks. One key element that gets consistently underestimated is the time, effort and skill it takes to source, develop and manage the required number of external partnerships to deliver on this strategic institutional aim. Even when thinking about more scalable models such as project-based learning, the effort to engage, support and manage quality with these external partners is significant.

Given these are usually credit bearing academic projects, but initial links often come from careers services or other professional services functions, there can be a lack of clarity around ownership and accountability for this crucial partnership development work. A lack of suitable of resourcing and workload planning for this partnership development process provides a significant risk factor, both for the quality of the experience for students but also for the sustainability of these partnerships and ultimately the external reputation of the institution.

Unless partners can engage with this endeavour efficiently and be adequately supported through the process, they will inevitably disengage; and this churn subsequently creates a vicious cycle by further increasing the intensive work required to deliver on this agenda. Who should manage these partnerships and what training is required? Both to manage academic workloads associated with these activities and ensure a great experience for partners.

As part of the Work strand of the Institute for Experiential and Skills Based Learning, the University of Leeds will be hosting an in-person symposium on Tuesday 26 March. Find out more and sign up here.

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