How to make your degree pay

Worcester University has one of the best graduate employment rates in the country. The reason? Its efforts to prepare students for the world of work. Richard Garner finds out how they do it – and asks: is this the future for higher education?

A glimpse of the university lifestyle of the future is emerging from one of Britain's newest universities, the University of Worcester. Soon, with the introduction of substantially higher tuition fees in 2012, students are likely to look at their future employment prospects before settling upon where they plan to study for their degrees. Employment chances could soon be the major factor in determining where youngsters plan to study.

It may surprise some potential undergraduates that, if they are thinking of studying in the West Midlands, it is Worcester that has the best record rather than its Russell Group neighbours, Birmingham and Warwick. Worcester, the fastest-growing UK university in terms of student numbers, also does better than Oxford in securing jobs for its undergraduates. Last year, 93 per cent of its graduates gained employment, placing it sixth in the country for its employment record.

By no means all potential applicants will be surprised by this, though, because the numbers seeking to go to Worcester are already increasing at a far faster rate than the average for higher education. "We've already had 10,000 applications for this September. Seven years ago it would have been 4,000 and that would have been by July," says Vice-Chancellor David Green. "There is no doubt we'll have 14,000 applicants by then. For those applicants we've got about 2,800 places."

The university places great emphasis on equipping its students for the world of work. Business students, for instance, spend a year on paid work placements in the course of their their four-year courses.

Twenty-two-year-old James Sheehy spent a year with Air Technology Systems, a company based in nearby Bromsgrove, which supplies heating and ventilation systems. He admits to having had no experience of ventilation or how it works when he started – but picked it up while shadowing its sales manger for six weeks. He was then set a target of bringing in £1 million worth of sales – and ended his secondment having netted £3.4m. "They actually offered me a job full-time when I finished my degree," he says. They also paid him a bonus for his efforts and offered to pay for all his final-year books.

Both he and his former schoolmate Brandon Witkowski, who was also offered full-time employment after spending a year with Lidl, reckon spending a year in the real world would enhance any student's employment prospects. "Some things you can't learn in the lecture room," says James. "Working in an office is something you can't learn in a university."

Graduate recruitment experts would concur with that. A survey by High Fliers of the top 100 graduate recruiters in the country, published last month, revealed that this summer's graduates would stand little or no chance of getting a job with a leading employer if they had had no work experience.

Professor Green is adamant that students who go on internships should be paid a wage while they do their jobs. "We've been very clear that we can't expect these young people to go and work for nothing," he says. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of places where people do unpaid work during the summer but – if they do that – it then depends on their family background as to whether they can sustain themselves in that work. Also, from the employers' point of view, how can you ensure that they complete the work if you are not paying them? What have you got to hold over them? We insist on a minimum wage-plus."

In addition, the university also offers employment to students on its campus – they can work as "ambassadors" for the university, doing a variety of jobs such as conducting campus tours for visitors and packing prospectuses for potential students.

Jonathan Hunter, aged 21, who is studying for a BA in human geography, enlisted under the scheme and has been deployed to schools to try and lure potential students to the university. "It is not only good for the university but you talk about student life to the pupils – what it's like moving away from your home for the first time, the difference between A-level and university work," he says.

Fellow student Will Patz, aged 23, who is taking an MSc in sport coaching, wants to become a lecturer. "It projected me into that career path," he says. "It was the networking, meeting people and socialising with them. It builds people's confidence."

Worcester started off as a teacher training institution and won full university status seven years ago. Its strengths still lie in training teachers and offering courses in nursing and midwifery. Much of these courses centre around training in the job. Overall, it has around 10,000 students and three-quarters are female (as a result of the concentration on teaching, nursing and midwifery). It has a slightly older age profile than many universities, with 70 per cent of its students being mature on entry – ie over 21.

The university is anxious to dispel the myth that a concentration on work-related learning puts students studying for creative and drama degrees at a disadvantage. "A lot of students study creative and digital media," says Professor Green, "and go off and do a placement in a firm." It is also pioneering a new postgraduate internship scheme whereby students spend four days a week at work and one in college.

Ruth Johnson, who is studying for a postgraduate qualification in applied management, is working as a sustainability officer with Worcester City Council. During that time, she also works with Transition, a community group dedicated to reducing carbon emissions. David Thorpe, who is her boss at Worcester City Council, thinks the decision to employ her has proved invaluable. "If we hadn't, when it came to issues like sustainability, it would have been allocated to an existing officer, who maybe could have given it 15 minutes of their time," he says.

Those who question whether – at a time of austerity in public spending – the council should pay to take on a student for four days a week, have their answer in the recommendations Ruth makes: often, simple things, such as ensuring all the lights are switched off after work, can end up saving the council money.

Worcester also invests time in its relations with its student union. At a time when there is growing hostility between some university vice-chancellors and their students as a result of the fees issue, it is refreshing to hear Michael Collins, the students' union president, sounding like an ambassador for the university himself. "I love the University of Worcester to bits," he says. "It is in my heart. In higher education, just having a degree is not the passport to jobs that it was any more because the jobs market is saturated with graduates. Students have to come up with as many avenues as possible for students to become more employable. The intern scheme is very good because it concentrates on earn-while-you-learn."

What Worcester is doing today, many other universities will be copying in the future. Professor Green has no doubt about that. "I think more people will become concerned about the employability and job prospects for their graduates so I think that will happen," he says.

Learn while you earn

Student Ambassadors

They earn up to £7.37 an hour conducting campus tours, helping international students settle in and acting as hosts at functions.

Disability and Dyslexia Service

Students can earn £7.21 an hour providing support such as note-taking in lectures and helping students access material in the library or scribing and reading questions in exams.

Think Smart Ambassador

Students take part in a 10-week drive to improve the motivation and confidence of 13- and 14-year-olds in schools about going to university. The pay is £7.37p an hour.

Student Associates

They work alongside teachers in local schools as mentors to pupils. They receive a bursary of £600 if they complete 15 days in a state school.

Paid work placements

Students have the chance to work for a firm of their choice. Around 70 per cent of placements get a job with the company they are placed with.

Sports Students

They have the opportunity to earn money through coaching sessions with local children's clubs. Activities can include refereeing and delivering sports science workshops in schools.