A year in industry puts theory into practice and prepares students for the workplace – yet sandwich courses are in decline

There's no substitute for hands-on experience. Photograph: Andrew Brookes/Corbis

You’ve just passed your degree, time to remove the arm bands and jump in at the deep end. You arrive at your interview and are greeted with the question: “How much industry experience do you have?”

Nowadays everyone is scrambling for work placements. Even unpaid internships are oversubscribed. Meanwhile employers say recent graduates are lacking work skills. Why then, are sandwich courses in decline?

Sandwich degrees – vocational courses where students spend a year working within their industry – are meant to introduce you to the world of work and complement university learning. Sounds good, right? Yet despite the advantages of sandwich degrees, there has been a steady fall in the numbers enrolling on such courses.

The Wilson review of links between universities and industry says (on page 38): “Despite the undoubted advantages of undertaking a placement, there has been a decline in this practice in recent years from 9.5% of the total full-time cohort in 2002-03 to 7.2% in 2009-10.”

The vast majority of these sandwich degrees are provided by a small cluster of universities and they’re mostly in areas such as science, engineering, IT and business.

I chose to study a degree in pharmaceutical science at Sheffield Hallam University because the course there allowed me to spend a year in industry – which I’m now doing, working with company Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies.

But why don’t more universities offer placement years – and in a broader range of courses? Employers’ reluctance to spend time supervising students is partly to blame, says Warwick University professor Kate Purcell, an expert in the graduate labour market.

“Work placements are very difficult for universities to set up and they’re expensive for to run – departments have to arrange visits by academics, and mentoring, to ensure students are having a rewarding experience.”

For students, the burden of paying tuition fees (albeit discounted) while on a placement year is off-putting. At the moment, universities can charge up to £4,500 for sandwich years – though a guideline fee of £1,000 has been suggested by the Wilson review.

Seven months into my placement I can say that it has been worth it. I’m using exciting technology to purify proteins aimed at stage 1, 2 and 3 drug trials. It’s satisfying to know that the drugs I’m developing may one day save lives. I feel like I’m learning from the best – and hopefully, when the dreaded moment comes, I’ll be able to respond to employers’ questions about my industry knowledge.

But it’s not just a handy nugget to add to the CV. My industry placement has been about experience and discovery, empiricism and experimentation. This year has given me confidence, memories, direction and assurance – and being paid has helped too. When I finally return to university for my final year I will no longer be a student, I’ll be a scientist.

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