Critical Work Placements

This post was contributed by Dr Sophie Hope, Lecturer in Arts Management in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

Critical_Work_Placements_logoToday, students and graduates are expected to be nurturing their entrepreneurial selves; moulding themselves into the brand that will appeal to prospective clients or employers. Students are often pressured by tutors and peers to carry out extra-curricula voluntary activities to help improve their ‘employability’. Universities are taking their responsibility in producing work-ready students more and more seriously by revamping careers advice, embedding work placements and offering recruitment services. The purpose and nature of university education is changing.

The situation in the creative industries

In the creative industries and arts sectors, employers offering regular or permanent jobs are few and far between, rather, students embark on a flexible, freelance, portfolio career which in reality involves a lack of separation between work and non-work, no pension, no sick-pay or other employment rights. Because the work is supposedly creative and you are ‘doing what you love’, you are expected to express gratitude and enthusiasm for the ‘opportunity’ to be entering into such a career path. A love of and commitment to the work is often used as an excuse for little or no pay. Within the context of academic study, ‘employability’ is often approached uncritically and in a vacuum, disconnected from the theory, history and politics of the changing realities of work. This is happening in a context where enquiring minds are supposedly being nurtured. Critical, independent thinking practiced in the university and efficient project management and communication skills expected in the job market have a difficult, contradictory relationship. Welcome to the world of credited work placements.

The fragmented career structures of graduates together with this disconnect between employability and critical thinking advocated by the academy were both triggers for my colleague Lorraine Lim and I to think about how work and education intersected in a university context.

Unequal access to work placements

Through our research, which led to the Critical Work Placements resource, we found that employability is a luxury not all students can afford. Indeed, students undertaking placements tend to be a self-selected group who are motivated, engaged and in the case of self-organised placements, are also expected to be confidently networked so as to know who to contact and how. Our research aimed to explore what a ‘serious, ethical, substantive academic’ period of work experience might look like for students, tutors and employers in the arts, and if this is at all possible. The resulting ethical tripartite agreement, developed with students, hosts and tutors, is a practical toolkit of flow diagrams and recommendations for students, host organisations and placement tutors working in higher education.

The case studies we looked at demonstrated a spectrum of approaches, from students self-organising their own placements to tutors working with partner organisations to ‘marry’ students to specific projects. The reasons for this range of approaches depended on the learning objectives of the course and resources available to the tutors to act as brokers and ‘relationship managers’ between hosts and students. While this diverse range of approaches is necessary because of the specifics of each course, it was pointed out that some support for those students who are not networked or confident in approaching potential hosts should be supported by the tutor, although it is recognised that this has resource implications for the department. Based on our review of existing literature, we found that well informed students and courses that explicitly connect the concepts, theories and realities of employability through practical experience and academic, critical reflection are perhaps a way forward.

There is increasing pressure from both students and managers in higher education to provide credited work placements, but the realities of placing students in organisations to carry out a specific project related to their academic learning is becoming more difficult. While there are some funded programmes supporting students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access placements, those students who do not qualify for this support but cannot afford to take up unpaid work placements continue to be at a disadvantage. The sector remains distinctly un-diverse. Placements are often reliant on the goodwill of people in those organisations who decide to invest their precious time and resources to provide necessary support to the student. Similarly, well-run credited placement programmes involve significant work-load for tutors and unless a university can provide the necessary paid staff-time to support students, running such programmes might be detrimental to their reputation and sustainability.

Writing about the proliferation of credited work placements in the US, Ross Perlin writes that “universities are falling over themselves to outsource their students’ education and lend credibility to illegal employment practices”. He provides examples of credited placements which involve envelope stuffing and leafleting. In the development of the Critical Work Placements website we took the position that students carrying out work that is far removed from their academic experience should be paid. Where students are paying to carry out work experience through university fees, the payoff has to be a rigorous, critical, reflexive, well-supported learning experience. It was recognised that placement students are not workers and that the placement is part of a broader, formal learning process, the outcomes of which will depend on what skills and learning the student wants to get out of it in relation to the course they are studying. The need to strike this practice/academic balance is central to the debate over credited work placements. This resource aims to provide a framework for that debate which students, hosts and tutors are invited to engage in.

Further reading:

  • Equality Challenge Unit. 2010. Work Placements in the Arts and Cultural Sector: Diversity, Equality and Access. London: Equality Challenge Unit/ Institute for Policy Studies London Met.
  • Perlin, R. 2011. Intern Nation. How to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy. London: Verso.
  • Yorke, M. 2003. Employability in higher education: what it is – what it is not. London: Higher Education Academy.
  • Barrow, R., Behr, C., Deacy, S., McHardy, F. and Tempest, K., 2010. “Embedding Employability into a Classics Curriculum: The Classical Civilisation Bachelor of Arts Programme at Roehampton University.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Vol. 9, p. 339-352.
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