The Role of Work Experience in the UK Higher Education Admissions Process

By Steven Jones

In Employer Engagement in Education: Theories and Evidence (Routledge, 2014) eds. Anthony Mann, Julian Stanley and Louise Archer

This article aims to investigate and quantify differences in the work related activity experienced by UK Higher Education (HE) applicants from a range of backgrounds as well as to consider how work experience is conceptualised in the HE admissions process. The underlying purpose of this research is to assess the wider implications for social mobility and social justice that differentiated access to and attitudes towards work experience may cause.

A major component of the HE admissions process is the personal statement, which is often used to distinguish between equal achievement candidates. Jones uses the personal statement in this research as a means to learn more about young people’s work-related activity as well as how young people understand the role of work experience. Under the backdrop of the Wolf Review of Vocational Education (2011), which has removed the statutory requirement for schools to offer universal pre-16 work experience, the paper explores whether this policy shift may put some young people at a disadvantage in HE admissions. While past studies have focused on the role of work experience in helping young people gain employment, Jones investigates the place of work experience in helping young people to enter HE.

The personal statement is described as the most ubiquitous non-academic indicator used by UK universities in the admissions process. As such, Jones uses the personal statement to analyse the work-related experiences of young people to discover how these experiences vary according to educational background, how they are understood and how this may advantage some applicants more than others. A sample of 309 personal statements (submitted to one Russell Group UK university for 2010 entry) were analysed. All the personal statements chosen were submitted by applicants who achieved identical A-level results (B,B,B) to control for academic attainment. The sample included 88 students from comprehensive schools, 83 from sixth form colleges, 45 from grammar schools and 93 from independent schools.

Firstly, Jones examines each personal statement to assess the quality and the quantity of the work-related activity mentioned by participants as well as how the individuals characterise this activity in their statement. The initial quantification of work-related activities takes into account all types of work experience (paid/un-paid, part-time/full-time) and shows that the distribution of activities across school types seems ‘fairly equitable’. However, when the quality of the work experience is accounted for, more pronounced differences become apparent. or example, when distinguishing between standard paid work and unpaid experiences, the data indicates that independent schools rely much less on paid work than their state educated counterparts and much more on voluntary activity.

Next the article studies the differences between applicants with regard to how they are able to articulate and capitalize on their work experience in the admissions process. Jones finds that independent school pupils not only have experience of more high prestige activities but also have the skills necessary to exploit this activity. The ways in which state educated pupils describe their work experience is viewed as significantly less effective in terms of relating the experience to the chosen course of study and in generally marketing their individual strengths. These findings imply that equal attainment applicants from different school types may not be competing on a level playing field when it comes to work-related activity.

When considering the role of the school in providing work-related experiences, further differences are revealed. State school students appear substantially more reliant on their educational institutions to provide opportunities for work-related activity than independent school pupils. Although there are exceptions, it is noted that, for the majority of young people in state education, school-mediated work experience is the only route to meaningful experience. Conversely, private school pupils often have an abundance of work-related activity made available to them through family and other personal connections rather than having to actively seek them out.

Social capital is also cited as one factor influencing the availiability of work experience opportunities. In many of the personal statements analysed in this research family and other personal connections are mentioned as being a principle method by which young people may access particular professions. Such instances were almost twice as common in the personal statements of private school applicants as those of other applicants. Not only do state school pupils make fewer references to the use of personal connections, their ability to make the experience relevant to the programme being applied for is more restricted.

The findings presented in this article are consistent with other research which suggests that some young people are unable to access the most prestigious and relevant forms of work-related activity. Furthermore, the evidence indicates that these young people are the least well guided when it comes to exploiting their work experience in the personal statement and as a consequence, are at a significant disadvantage in the HE admissions process, regardless of academic achievement. The article concludes that work experience opportunities are unequally distributed among young people in the UK and socioeconomic status is the primary predictor of both the quantity and quality of the work-related activity of UK HE applicants. Jones suggests that in order to mitigate such inequality, HE admissions should reconsider the role that work experience should play in choosing between equal attainment applicants and place less weight on an indicator to which applicants have differing levels of access.