Award-winning study quantifies benefit of work placements
Research with UK-wide and global implications, carried out at the University of Leicester, has won a national careers service excellence award.
The study showed that engineering students who had undertaken industrial placements obtained better final degree results than those who had not.
It was carried out by Richard Mendez, work-related learning manager in the University Careers Service, and Dr Aldo Rona, senior lecturer in thermofluids in the Department of Engineering.
Their work won the research category in the 2011 excellence awards from the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS), beating off competition from Russell Group universities.
The study sought to test a widely held but unproven view that good quality industrial placements are not only beneficial for students, but can actually boost their academic performance.
At Leicester, those following Bachelor of Engineering (BEng) or Master of Engineering (MEng) courses in general, mechanical, electrical and electronic or communications engineering have the option to do a year’s industrial placement between the second and third years of their courses.
Mendez and Rona found that there was a positive correlation between those who opted to spend a year in industry and their degree outcomes, equating to an improvement of about nine percentage points.
This tends to reinforce staff opinions that students returning from a year in industry are more mature and have better focus and transferable skills.
Richard Mendez stresses that the study was only a small-scale pilot, involving 83 students, that built on more comprehensive earlier research by others. Also, students involved were not asked why they thought they had done better than might have been expected, following a placement.
He is therefore now carrying out a larger, longitudinal study as part of his PhD. This will involve more than 300 engineering students who studied from 2004 to 2009, and will feature interviews with academics as well as the students themselves.
As the AGCAS award acknowledges, this field of research is a highly significant one - not only for academic institutions but for the country’s economic well-being.
Mendez said: “Increasingly students are demanding more for their money. There’s been a lot of research that says that if you do a placement it improves your likelihood of getting a good job.
“Students now need to see that it potentially also improves your degree classification - which in turn will improve your job prospects with a lot of employers out there who want an absolute minimum of a 2:1.”
UK-wide there has been a yearly decline in the number of students taking up placements. The reasons for this are multi-faceted, but the country is lagging behind other European economies in this regard.
“There is all this talk about higher education and the knowledge economy, and that to make the UK more competitive we need to be producing graduates with the right skills and the right competencies. Again, placements are ideal to provide that,” Richard Mendez said.
“We need to articulate the fact that placements should be on the increase because it will make the UK a more highly skilled global economy.”
The Relationship Between Industrial Placements and Final Degree Results: a study of engineering placement students, Richard Mendez and Aldo Rona Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, Issue 4-2, 2010.