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Work Placements in an Economics Degree

1. Introduction

In the 21/22 academic year, 86,620 students were enrolled on a non-science undergraduate sandwich degree in the UK, of which 44,765 students were from Business and Management courses and 15,045 from Social Sciences. This figure has fallen slightly from 19/20 when 91,355 students were enrolled on a sandwich degree (HESA 2023). Sandwich degrees are a popular programme that integrate periods of practical work experience into the curriculum, or in some cases encourage students to go overseas and study abroad to widen their educational experience. Typically, these types of programmes are longer than an average undergraduate programme and usually add in a whole year of placement after the 2nd year of study and prior to the final year. The general goal is to provide students with an opportunity to apply their theoretical knowledge (gained in years 1 & 2) to a real-world environment, to gain practical experience, and to develop professional skills relevant to their field of study. Placements can be paid or unpaid. They can vary in duration. They may encompass multiple employers. They may mix both employment and study.

Historically, a number of Higher Education institutions have utilised the “sandwich option” as a key USP. For example, well-known placement providers include Aston University, the University of Bath, and the University of Surrey, who all have strong links with industry which facilitate valuable placement opportunities. Indeed, these institutions have developed significant capabilities and infrastructure that ensure each student is matched with an appropriate employer based on the student’s skill set.

2. What are the supposed benefits of a work placement?

Undertaking a sandwich degree has a number of benefits for students. First of all it allows students to gain significant work experience, in particular for those students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Essentially, it allows students to apply the knowledge gained in the 1st and 2nd year to a real-world context. Secondly, one of the work placements aims is to make graduates more attractive to employers after graduation. Students become work-ready, they start to develop a blend of skills that may be industry-specific, adaptable and potentially transferable. Usually this encompasses the ability to become an effective communicator, learn how to work in a team environment, meet deadlines and organise their time as well as beginning to use their initiative to become self-motivated. Traditionally, these competencies are difficult to incorporate in a university programme’s curriculum and hence the benefits of acquiring them on placement.

2.1 Do work placements improve student performance?

One of the main benefits we have noticed when teaching students in the final year, after they have been on a work placement, is that their levels of intrinsic motivation seem higher. They have had a taste of what work is like and many of them have a clearer picture of what their life will look like after they have graduated. In many cases, students have already landed a graduate job or intend to return to their placement year employer. For these reasons, one might expect students to perform to a higher level during the final year of their studies.

The academic literature typically observes a positive performance effect for those students who have gone on a work placement. Studies by Surridge (2008), Green (2011) and Mansfield (2011) show that placements improve students’ final year performance. Building on this research, Jones et al. (2017) find that students who undertook a work placement from Aston and Ulster Universities improved their final year academic performance by 2% and 4% respectively; this effect controls for the possibility of self-selection. This is important because it is possible that students who choose a work placement might typically be considered as the strongest-performing students. This can partially be explained by the fact that one of the key drivers of choosing to go on a placement is a higher 1st and 2nd year mark, as these marks act as a strong signal to employers of a student's capabilities. Nevertheless, even controlling for self-selection like this, we still observe a positive placement effect on final year students' marks.

In another piece of research, Jones and Wang (2022) also present evidence that students who have been on work placements improve academic performance in the final year relative to those students who choose to do an international study placement.

2.2 Do work placements improve student earnings?

One of the potential drawbacks of taking a sandwich degree is that the length of a student’s degree is extended. This extension incurs an additional tuition fee (though considerably smaller than the usual annual fee of £9,250) as well as the opportunity cost. For example, students on a normal 3-year undergraduate degree will be entering the labour market one year earlier and straight after graduation. It is possible that returns to that year are greater than those from engaging in a placement for one year.

Recently, Delis and Jones (2023) found that a work placement year boosts graduate starting salaries by £1,686 for Aston University graduates. They conducted an empirical analysis that, as in Jones et al (2017), considers the possibility of self-selection: that is, a significantly higher number of students with better academic skills or higher effort levels choose a work placement and these choices might bias an estimation that does not control for such choices. They further consider how these higher starting salary gains are distributed across gender and ethnicity. It appears that work placements might widen gender pay inequality but reduce pay inequality based on ethnicity.

3. What are the supposed costs of a work placement?

As well the additional tuition fee and an extension to the period of university study, there are additional costs that students and placement providers should consider. The most obvious is the possibility that students don’t match well with their placement providers. During our time at Aston University, we have been on numerous placement visits and have first-hand experience of seeing students in their workplace and meeting their employers. Occasionally we have met students who, at first glance, appeared to have landed a fantastic work placement with a leading employer and been well-remunerated. However, sometimes students may be given rather routine tasks and many potential benefits of work experience are not being gained. In contrast, we once visited a student in a placement at a local convenience store. On the surface, this seemed like a very poor placement yet, when we met the student, it became apparent that the student was playing a very active role in running the business – many entrepreneurial capabilities were being obtained.

Another cost is the delay in graduation for the placement student. If they take a traditional 3-year degree, they obviously enter the labour market sooner. Hence, students should consider the one-year loss of earnings by taking a placement year and compare those potential losses to the earnings in that year as well as the returns a placement may generate into the future. This type of calculus, however, is by no means straightforward. It may also depend on the state of the economy and the labour market when graduates enter.

4. How to optimise work placements

Given the costs and benefits of a sandwich degree, there are a number of ways a higher education institution can optimise the net benefits of a placement year to their student cohort. This is often linked to the infrastructure that matches students to the placement provider, the type of assessment that is designed to evaluate the student’s placement year and the transition in to and out of the placement in the years prior to and after the work placement.

Placement Infrastructure

To effectively match students to a work placement, HE institutions need robust infrastructure that encompasses a dedicated placement office or careers service staffed with experienced professionals. This is not something individual academics, as course directors, can provide themselves. The placement office is responsible for maintaining strong relationships with a diverse range of industry partners to ensure that a wide variety of placements are on offer.

Best practice involves leveraging a sophisticated database system that can manage student profiles, including their skills, interests, and academic background, as well as detailed information about available placements, including role descriptions, required skills, and company profiles. The matching process benefits from an algorithm or set of criteria designed to align students’ preferences and educational objectives with suitable placement opportunities. Additionally, the infrastructure should include an online portal where students can access placement opportunities, submit applications, and receive feedback. Pre-placement training modules on this platform can prepare students for their placements, covering topics such as CV writing, interview skills, and workplace etiquette.

Regular communication channels, including newsletters and information sessions, keep students informed about new opportunities and deadlines. It is important that placement offices maintain their relationships with industry partners to ensure placements are available to students in the future. This means the placement office has to adapt to changing patterns of work over time.

Students now have to write a number of reflective pieces commenting on the workplace skills they are developing during their placement year.

Assessment Alignment

Effective assessment of the placement year is determined by the placement's learning outcomes. HE institutions may choose to adopt a University-wide placement year and assess a broad set of learning outcomes, cutting across a wide range of courses. On the other hand, specific programmes may design discipline-specific learning outcomes that are aligned with subject-focused knowledge that students have gained on their course.

At Aston University some years ago, we asked the students to write a placement essay. This was a large piece of work and some aspects mirrored an undergraduate dissertation. The main goal of the essay was for students to solve a practical problem encountered during their work placement and to think through how the problem could be solved with reference to some of the analytical tools learned during years 1 & 2 of their degree. In recent years, we have moved away from this type of assessment. Students now have to write a number of reflective pieces commenting on the workplace skills they are developing during their placement year. In addition to this, students are required to develop a presentation, to be delivered to senior managers in their organisation, that solves a particular problem. It is thought that these new forms of assessment are better aligned to the key learning objectives of the work placement.

Transitioning into and out of placement

Lastly, the transition into and out of the placement is critical, with perhaps more emphasis needed on the latter. Very often when students return from their placement, they show much greater levels of maturity and are work-ready. This means as they enter back into the classroom, they are more driven to succeed. They often have much greater expectations of academics, in particular in terms of module delivery and assessment.

It is possible that the employer that hosted the placement has put conditional requirements on the student's degree classification in order to give them a future role. Or the students might have gained significant insights into the requirements of the industry they wish to work in. For these reasons, final year module designers should try, if possible, to integrate some of the skills students have gained during the work placement back into the curriculum. This is not an easy task because work placements differ significantly between students.

Academics teaching in the final year may be able to draw upon students' experience during the placement year, creating positive feedback loops. This could include updating course content, to reflect the links between practical experience and theoretical knowledge, or the introduction of guest lecturers from the professions as well as industry collaboration. Also consider incorporating project-based learning that simulates real-world business/economics challenges.


Delis, A. and Jones, C., 2023. The impact of work placements on graduate earnings. Studies in Higher Education48 (11), pp.1708-1723.

Green, J. P. 2011. A Review of Work Based Learning in Higher Education Sheffield: Quality Support Centre, The Open University, Department for Education and Employment.

HESA (2023) Undergraduate sandwich student enrolments by subject of study and sex 2019/20 to 2021/22

Jones, C. M., Green, J. P., & Higson, H. E. (2017). Do work placements improve final year academic performance or do high-calibre students choose to do work placements? Studies in Higher Education, 42 (6), 976-992.

Jones, C. and Wang, Y., 2023. The performance effects of international study placements versus work placements. Higher Education, 85 (3), pp. 689-710.

Mansfield, R. 2011. “The Effect of Placement Experience Upon Final-Year Results for Surveying Degree Programmes.” Studies in Higher Education.

Surridge, I. 2008. “Accounting and Finance Degrees: Is the Academic Performance of Placement Students Better?” Accounting Education 18 (4): 471–85.

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