Sandwich courses are undergraduate degree programmes that include a year-long placement in industry or part-time work-experience. Existing research has demonstrated that considerable advantages follow from taking a sandwich course, particularly in relation to accessing professional-level employment on graduation, and that these advantages are often heightened for those from widening participationbackgrounds. Nevertheless, it is also known that students from widening participation backgrounds are much less likely to take up the opportunity of a sandwich year.
Although there has been some limited research on the reasons for this, such studies have often focussed on a single higher education institution, or a single degree subject. In addition, while some of these studies have made recommendations about how the problems they identify can be addressed, in no cases have recommendations been tested with prospective users. To address these gaps, our research provides a broad understanding of the barriers to accessing, and succeeding on, sandwich courses experienced by widening participationstudents.
We conducted 40 interviews with undergraduate students – some who had taken a sandwich year and some who hadn’t – and 10 interviews with staff from higher education institutions across England. As well as asking about barriers to accessing and succeeding on sandwich courses, we tested our recommendations with 20 of the students.
Recommendations and key areas for action
Based on our interviews, we identified five key areas where higher education institutions could take action to improve access to, and success during, sandwich courses for those from widening participation backgrounds:
Recommendation 1: Improve the collection and use of higher education institutions’ data relating to sandwich courses.
Higher education institutions should make a concerted effort to collect consistent data on the social characteristics of students accessing sandwich courses, the placements these students attend, and the degree and labour market outcomes associated with attendance. Furthermore, higher education institutions should routinely monitor the data on sandwich course uptake to assess whether a representative group of the student population is accessing placement opportunities.
Recommendation 2: Conduct more robust evaluation
Following recommendation 1, higher education institutions should make use of their institutional data and TASO’s Theory of Change (published alongside our research) to design and conduct the type of experimental and quasi-experimental evaluations that allow strong conclusions to be drawn about what works for helping students from widening participation backgrounds access and benefit from sandwich courses and work placements. It will also be important for higher education institutions to evaluate changes introduced as a result of the other recommendations.
Recommendation 3: Further develop internal policies on the provision of sandwich courses
Higher education institutions should consider offering a greater variety of sandwich course than is currently available in many institutions, for example: part-time placements, shorter placements, internal placements, and placements that involve spending time with more than one organisation. Greater variety in the type of sandwich course offered was typically welcomed by students and estimated to overcome some of the challenges associated with a more conventional sandwich course model.
Higher education institutions should also consider implementing specific support on student finances for learners considering a sandwich course. This includes: providing budgeting and other financial advice; advertising only paid placements; offering a bursary to widening participation students; and liaising with employers to reduce the costs associated with the application process.
Recommendation 4: Improve the timing and accessibility of sandwich course information
Higher education institutions should seek to provide students with easily accessible information about sandwich courses early in the students’ first year of study. Simultaneously, institutions should actively encourage collaboration between the student service teams supporting learners with specific needs (e.g. those supporting students with disabilities) and the employability team promoting the uptake of sandwich courses to ensure the provision of information is timely and accessible.
Recommendation 5: Enhance support provided to students
Higher education institutions should enhance the support offered to widening participation students considering a sandwich course as well as to those who have already enrolled in such a course. This should include individual-level support when students are first considering their options, to enable trusting relationships to form between the student and their designated placement tutor. The continuation of tutor support (and connection to the institution more generally) while the student completes their sandwich course and as they reintegrate back into their final year of study is also recommended. Final year support includes: helping students’ to reflect on the skills and knowledge developed during the placement year; assisting students to effectively drawn upon experience in job applications; and ensuring that students’ academic skills are at an appropriate level for the last year of their degree.
Many of these recommendations would benefit all higher education students, not just those from widening participation backgrounds.
The full report can be accessed here.