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Work placements: A place of importance

17 August 2006
Work placements: A place of importance

In recent years, getting a place at university has become a buyer's market. Open competition and pressure on colleges to recruit high numbers of students, and to keep them, has already pushed the further education system into offering fast-track degrees. These make the traditional work-placement sandwich year optional or cut it out altogether.

The introduction next month of top-up fees for students starting their degree courses will have a further effect on their willingness to commit to a year-long work placement.

Although students are paid during their work placements, in most cases their wages only cover their living costs. Meanwhile, they continue to pay tuition fees - albeit reduced - during their year in industry, to cover the costs of administration and academic support.

Top-up fees mean that overall tuition fees for a four-year hospitality management degree course will increase by as much as £5,337, in the case of an international hotel management degree at Thames Valley University.

Fast-track courses
In the face of such rising costs, some see the trend for fast-track degree courses as understandable. "It's no surprise that both students and university managers find themselves in this situation," says Alan Machin, tourism management lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University. "Some tutors are coming to the conclusion that, within three to five years, the sandwich course will be like that famous culinary offering of British Rail - drying up, curled at the edges and heading for the dustbin."

But many colleges and hospitality employers are actively engaged in preventing the sandwich course from dying out. In June, Placement Advisors for Tourism and Hospitality (Path) launched its good practice guidelines (see panel, left) and hosted a conference in Oxford to discuss how colleges and employers should promote the benefits of work experience.

Delegates recognised the challenges posed by top-up fees. The increasing costs borne by students and parents mean that colleges need to show that they provide value for money.

During a round-table discussion, Maureen Spriggs, placement co-ordinator at Thames Valley University, said: "Students will say, ‘This is a lot of money. I'm going to examine the exact quality of each placement and what I'm going to get out of it.' But it is also an opportunity for us to really promote how vital work placements are."

Donald Sloan, head of hospitality at Oxford Brookes University, argued that top-up fees would heighten the standing of those colleges with good industry relations. "If some colleges can't demonstrate good links with high-quality employers, they may suffer," he said. "Undoubtedly, employers will also be under scrutiny. Top-up fees will cut out employers who pay very little and take a casual attitude to placements."

Students will want to know where the additional costs are going. Spriggs added: "What are we giving the student who is paying more than £1,000 to do a one-year work placement? You can't expect them just to accept the cost. We have to start selling the benefits of the placement."

So what do students get? At Oxford Brookes, all hospitality and tourism students on placements receive at least two visits from a tutor, no matter where they are placed in the world. But some universities do not provide visiting tutors. Since English universities get £1,800 from the Higher Education Funding Council for England for each work placement year, plus the tuition fee, they will face increased scrutiny of the support they offer students.

Angela Maher, senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes and chair of Path, clearly spelt out the long-term financial benefits of the full four-year degree, including work experience. She said that taking a part-time job while studying was not a valid alternative. According to the Office for National Statistics (in 2003), each additional year in education adds an average of 10% to a graduate's salary.

Develop awareness
Maher said that students have the opportunity to put what they have learnt during their studies into practice. They develop an awareness of workplace culture, learn to work with others, enhance their career prospects and develop personal and professional skills and attributes.

Siobhon Simpson, who will soon start the final year of her BSc honours degree in hotel and restaurant management, told delegates that the placement she secured at the Renaissance Chancery Court hotel in London had been invaluable. "Both my confidence and my professional knowledge have developed hugely," she said. "My ideas about a career in hotels are now more focused. All in all, I feel better equipped for the rest of my degree, and it has been one of the most valuable aspects of studying at Oxford Brookes Business School."

Rahila Gowon, who has a first-class BSc honours degree in hotel and restaurant management from Oxford Brookes, did a six-month placement with Restaurant Associates in 2004, located at an investment bank in London. She was given a project looking at the feasibility of centralising hospitality bookings at the site. Gowon said: "It was very different from other placements. It gave me a fresh perspective and opened my eyes to the variety of opportunities available in contract catering."

Maher stressed that colleges must provide clearly articulated and achievable outcomes for their work-placement students. They need to monitor students while they are at work through a link tutor, and not farm out work placements to administrative staff.

Greater relevance
She added that, when students returned for their final year, they were a pleasure to teach, because they could see the greater relevance of the course and they had a lot to say. "This is very valuable to us as educators," she noted, "and it informs curriculum development."

Delegates heard that the benefits for employers include gaining an intelligent, motivated and cost-effective labour resource, which represents a good return on investment. Research by Shell Step, an SME placement organisation, indicates a £6 return for every £1 spent by an employer.

Work placements can also act as a graduate recruitment tool. At Marks & Spencer, 40% of work-placement students are offered employment. Students provide an injection of fresh, new ideas, while taking the role of workplace mentor presents a valuable development opportunity for staff members.

Maher concluded that colleges and employers needed to communicate the range and benefits of work placements. There was also a need for more companies, especially SMEs, to offer work placements.

Companies interested in offering work placements should contact Angela Maher by e-mail at amaher@brookes.ac.uk, or Sara Langley at . Good practice guidelines for work placements

Employer commitments include:

  • Providing appropriate training for staff who are involved in the operation of work placements.
  • Appointing a workplace mentor who will be responsible for the student's overall development.
  • Providing students with a full induction into the organisation.
  • Appraising the student regularly during placement and providing a final debrief.

Educator commitments include:

  • Providing support and advice to enable the student to maximise learning at work.
  • Maintaining regular contact with both student and mentor to discuss work performance.
  • Providing written information on how the educator will communicate with the student and the workplace mentor.
  • Fully training visiting tutors (where used).

Student commitments include:

  • Engaging fully in preparation for work placement, including researching the employer's organisation.
  • Understanding learning outcomes for the placement and actively seeking out learning opportunities at work.
  • Taking responsibility for their own learning and professional relationships during placement.

A full version of these guidelines is available from the Council for Hospitality Management Education website: www.chme.co.uk

Tuition costs for a four-year hospitality management degree

Before top-up fees (2005-06)After top-up fees (2006-07)Difference
University of Huddersfield£4,095£9,000£4,905
Oxford Brookes University£4,425£9,600£5,175
Thames Valley University£4,113£9,450£5,337
Leeds Metropolitan University£4,125£7,000£2,875

Tuition costs of work-placement year

Before top-up fees (2005-06)After top-up fees (2006-07)
University of Huddersfield£570nil
Oxford Brookes University£600£600
Thames Valley University£587£1,350
Leeds Metropolitan University£600£1,000
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