October 4th, 2013 by matthias

This week, I participated in a placement event, organised by Cogent, the sector skills council for sciences. They asked me to moderate a panel discussion, which I happily did. But the part where I was shutting up and listening was (us usual) the one where I learnt the most. The life sciences sector employs about 150k people in the UK, and although universities churn out 30k qualified graduates per year (according to latest DLHE figures), only about 2k actually start working in their field of study. This leads to two things: companies having trouble finding candidates, and an aging workforce.

It should come to no surprise that placements are being seen as an excellent way to improve relationships between education and the industry, right along the lines of the Wilson review, which recognised their importance. And with some well deserved government funding, Cogent has launched a placements service (www.cogent-placements.com), helping to actively place students – and as part of that they are also launching a charm offensive trying to improve links between higher education providers and employers. Which is where the event fitted in.

It was well attended by more than 20 universities who run specialist courses, and we were situated in a lovely (albeit it hot) room at Nottingham Trent University (of which I’m proud to say – as it’s chair – that they are a PlaceNet member). So I saw some known faces, and met many new placement professionals, academics and employability specialists. Industry knowledge was represented by Cogent themselves, as well as an excellent industry speaker (Anthony Brown from CellCentric) from ¬†who showed not only great knowledge about what universities offer, but also a strong commitment to placements in general.

It would be foolish of me to attempt to summarise the whole discussion – have a look under #livescienceplacements on Twitter for details – there are a number of take home points that stuck with me:
The first one was really about the drivers within the industry that affect placements in this specific industry. Budgets are tight, and they affect the amount of resource which can be spent on R&D – which is of course critical in this industry. There has always been an extremely high staff turnover in the industry, which has driven the development of cross-company networks, and the creation of new ideas. Now this may sound useful from a placement perspective (students are a highly flexible, cheap resource), but it may create barriers, as HR departments (who sometimes don’t fully understand the specific skills needs of their labs) can become risk averse or just become ineffective under the strain. And it is of course a (business) risk to take on placement students, who will need more supervision (at first). However, those who do, pretty much invariably appreciate the input of fresh ideas (and questions) being brought into what is a sector which is dependent on curiosity and innovation. The question was raised who will need to make sure placement students have the necessary lab skills to ensure quality and safety standards (I can’t obviously resist from also bringing up the possible creation of a zombie virus in this context) – and some universities prepare their students specifically for this in advance.

But what really struck me was that while there was a lot of focus on the scientific aspects of student placements in life sciences, the panel discussion focused on the classic issues which surround pretty much every discussion about employability. I promise, I didn’t steer this – the panel was put together at the spot by audience participation and the questions they raised (pretty much the same format I used last year at the NUS zones conference) – you ask questions, you move on to the panel. The main issues raised were about balancing the interests of the four stakeholders involved: employers, who seek a flexible, qualified and cost effective resource; students often lacking the confidence and resilience needed to go through gruelling recruitment processes; academic departments who like the idea of industry links, but who sceptical of the employability agenda; and placements staff who feel underrepresented and who are generally often under resourced. Time and again, in these circumstances, the need for strategic clarity and institutional leadership in higher education seems to the deciding factor: if there is more than nominal buy in on the top level of an institution, coordination between academic and professional services, and addressing the classic barriers students face to take on placements (confidence, communicating their skills, and lack of mobility – often in response to economic factors).

All in all, I thought it was a very successful day – and it’s good to see that there is momentum behind fostering placements – from which all involved stakeholders benefit from.

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