Surrey's Award-Winning Placement Year: Stories From the Students it Failed By Charlotte West

96% of Surrey undergraduates are in work or further education 15 months after graduating. That's the statistic the university has been plastering over its social media these past few months. With an award-winning placement year seeming to be the source of this employable success, it appears to be one of Surrey's last redeeming qualities as we witness it drop another 11 places in this year's Complete University Guide league table - but what about the students that even the Professional Training Year (PTY) has failed?

From the moment I stepped onto the campus, aged 17, for an open day the lecturers were immediately boasting about the 2,300+ industry connections that they have. As an English Literature student with little idea of what I wanted to do with my life, this seemed too good to be true. There were photos of past students having worked at Universal Studios, ESPN, Sky, Toyota - these big, flashy company names glistening at me. Temptation: the perfect marketing tool. Now in my final year, it seems that those smiling faces standing beside the Warner Bros sign, following their dream placement, were simply there to hide the true hardship of the placement journey.

"Temptation: the perfect marketing tool."

There's no doubt that the University of Surrey has a proud reputation for employability. The university has won, for the second year running, the National Undergraduate Employability Award for the Best University Placement Service, and for 2019 Surrey was ranked number one in the UK for work placements by the QS World Employability Rankings. These are impressive statistics, but hidden beneath them are the ones that the system failed - particularly those on smaller courses - swept under the carpet, out of sight.

One of those students was from the International Events Management course. I initially spoke to her in October of last year, after we both found ourselves on a temporary withdrawal year.

"I wanted to do a placement year with the promise of contacts in high places. However after trying and applying for so many companies nothing pulled through. In terms of university help there was almost nothing. There were placements on pathfinder, but they were often unpaid or just not reachable in terms of commuting. I honestly feel the university support was awful. I visited the placement centre on campus twice for their drop-in sessions and was always told to come back again another time.”

It is true that when the university makes these grand statements of placements in big companies, students may expect them to be more forward with sharing applications. It is understandably frustrating and disheartening if they find themselves missing out, after having been lusting after it for two years, because they realise it is unpaid or geographically far out. In my experience, when it came to these concerns of funding or tricky commutes, the careers advisor shrugged their shoulders, no proactive response or solution provided.

I asked her what she thought could be done to improve the hunt for a placement, “I think they need to be more realistic about their contacts, and offer more support by using the placement sessions and lectures to actually talk to students about their placement, rather than just talk at them about the requirements set by the university. On the Events course especially we were overshadowed by the Hospitality and Tourism side of things, as there was just so much focus on their placements and what previous students had done, with no mention of Events.”

This is where Surrey expertly hides the students that they have failed - our university is host to huge engineering, business and healthcare courses, meaning that the smaller courses, such as International Events Management, and subjects that aren't vocational, such as my course, English Literature, are able to get brushed under the carpet. This becomes even clearer with Surrey boasting that their top five industries for Surrey graduates are Healthcare, Education, Engineering, Finance and Computing.

"In the early days of our degree we were given big promises of successful placements - it is now clear that these were predominantly about courses that were not our own, or from individuals that turned out to be the exception rather than the norm."

You could argue that students on small courses shouldn't have chosen to study at Surrey when there are other universities in the UK with larger departments on offer - but when you're in sixth form, how are you supposed to predict that these will become issues in the future? As the International Events Management student shared, in the early days of our degree we were given big promises of successful placements - it is now clear that these were predominantly about courses that were not our own, or from individuals that turned out to be the exception rather than the norm.

I was also a student that felt let down by the university during my placement hunt. I knew that I wanted to complete one in the media or journalism, but was quickly told that magazines and newspapers rarely offered a long nine month placement, which was the minimum needed to qualify for a PTY. I visited both lecturers and careers advisors throughout my second semester, many of whom told me to apply for marketing placements as they would give me transferable skills.

What I really needed was someone who wasn't afraid to suggest taking a year out to pursue short internships, which is what I ended up doing. It felt as though my future was being based on fulfilling requirements set out by the university: I was a number to be added to their PTY percentages, rather than a student genuinely needing help with her career prospects.

On the English course especially, it seems that many of us are pressured into industries just for the sake of the 'experience'. This attitude did not fare well for an anonymous student on the course, who took up a placement working full-time in customer relations.

“When I first looked into PTY I mainly applied for jobs in the social media marketing field but found that I didn’t have the experience that employers wanted,” they explained. “In the end, I found myself in a customer relations position which, not only did I find unenjoyable, I found it didn't challenge me at all. I don’t feel as though I learnt anything new throughout the nine months I stayed there and, in the end, my mental health was affected owing to the repetitive and unenjoyable daily tasks.

“Thankfully, when I did decide to end my placement early, my tutor was incredibly supportive and laid out all my options much quicker than I would have expected, even finding ways for me to avoid applying for Extenuating Circumstances which would have been extra strain on me at a time. I do feel my experience throughout my PTY would have been completely different had I had more support from the placement team when searching for and applying for placement roles.”

"English students pushed towards marketing, teaching, customer relations and recruitment proves how much university has become about employability as opposed to the research and studying itself."

English students pushed towards marketing, teaching, customer relations and recruitment proves how much university has become about employability as opposed to the research and studying itself. English Literature is one of the few last remaining degrees that are taken out of sheer enjoyment and intrigue, rather than a qualification leading to a profession. As we move around a capitalist world led by employability, these departments need to be creative with their job offerings - why are English students not offered workshops on freelancing? It's an ever-growing profession that surely appeals to many students, especially if they want to make some extra cash on the side while still studying.

The lack of support, and expectation for students to walk blindly into the job market, doesn't sit right with me, particularly when the job market is so competitive. It causes the hunt in second year to be filled with intense stress as students try to balance filling out applications, attending interviews and continuing to study for a degree. While for some it has provided a practice run for life post-graduation, for others it seems like a less flexible and more intense alternative. Many universities across the country don't push for placements as much as Surrey, and perhaps that can be linked to it being one of their last redeeming qualities as an institution.

Of course, the placement hunt is never going to be successful for everyone - job applications and interviews are a brutal experience in the real world and so it provides good practice for our post-graduation lives. Further, it is true that any experience is going to gleam on your CV, but should that always be our priority? Are the 'transferable skills' worth it when the job results in poor mental health? Does Surrey provide enough support for those that can't afford the unpaid internships they often advertise on pathfinder? Should they even be promoting companies that are so inaccessible?

Despite our university's success in employability, I believe that it is important to remember that behind the percentages are students - people - trying their best to navigate a ruthless world.


Created with an image by Avi Richards