Scholarship of Engagement for Politics

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FDTL Workshop:

Placement Learning in Politics:
essential, added value or plain frivolous?

FDTL Workshop
19th January 2007
University of Warwick

This workshop, facilitated by the FDTL project - The Scholarship of Engagement for Politics, brought together colleagues within Politics/International Relations and cognate disciplines, and those interested in University pedagogy more generally, to explore the value of placement learning. The workshop discussed the pedagogic reasoning for and practice of placement learning, the types of placement that can work within the Politics curriculum, principles of good practice in placement learning, the common pitfalls, and issues surrounding assessment and student support. The program included perspectives from students, employers, and academic colleagues already involved in placement learning.

Generic models of Placement Learning The day began with invited speakers discussing their experiences of placement learning within the wider social sciences community.

Flavia Gapper (Roehampton University) felt that placements within the local area often help students to focus upon the issues and link the placement back into their studies. She also felt it was important to find space within the curriculum to follow-up on the placement after students have returned. She argued that in capturing the placement experience, the use of information technology is perhaps over-emphasised.

Andrew Williams (School of Law, Warwick University) emphasised how the specificity of each scheme means that some lessons from both an organisational and pedagogic perspective are confined to that placement scheme. He spoke of his own experience of using an internship scheme and developing this into an applied learning framework. He argued that in general, the main barrier to the development of placement learning is not financial cost, but cost in terms of staff time, and often institutional resistance to the introduction of placement schemes is due to the time implications.

Paul Sheeran (University of Winchester) followed up on a point made by Andrew Williams of the difficulty of placement learning taking root, by demonstrating how he ensured this by integrating a placement scheme into the design and validation of a degree programme. This, he argued, ensured that the placement was embedded from the outset, rather than being an add-on. However, he recognised that the development of placement learning is dependent upon the culture of the academic institution.

Paul Duckett (Manchester Metropolitan University) felt that there is a ‘political underbelly’ to the current interest in placement learning, namely the pressure on higher education institutions to link with the local business community, and to address issues of graduate employability. He suggested that there were dangers that placement learning will be further embraced by higher education institutions, but the emphasis will remain on the development of key skills rather than subject-specific skills. He advocated the need for quality placements in terms of their pedagogic objectives, and advised to start small.

Placement Learning in Politics: 'The Westminster Model' Professor The Lord Norton of Louth, University of Hull gave a detailed insight into the Westminster placement scheme that has been running for over twenty years. He felt that there are numerous benefits for students undertaking placements in terms of the development of several skills confidence building; time-management; networking; subject knowledge; and problem solving. He provided a detailed overview of how the placement scheme is organised around four themes: induction; integration; evaluation; and employability. This, he argued, enabled students to benefit academically and personally from the placement experience.

Lord Nortons Speech

What works for Politics/International Relations? The focus of the workshop then moved to specific cases within Politics/International Relations.

Barrie Axford (Oxford Brookes University) outlined the initial findings of the Scholarship of Engagement for Politics project, how a survey has demonstrated that there are a limited number of placement learning schemes operating within Politics/International Relations within the UK, and offered perspectives on why the discipline can be agnostic or even sceptical.

Lisa Harrison (University of West of England) outlined the placement scheme coordinated by her, which focuses upon students in their second year of study, and is a research-based learning scheme. She emphasised how, in setting up the scheme, she wanted to move away from the ‘traditional’ type of placement with MPs/MEPs, and focus upon non-governmental and public sector bodies. She felt that the FDTL project very much reflects the ethos of the approach at UWE.

Merrill Clarke (De Montfort University) provided an insight to the placement scheme he has coordinated for many years, and how students are often more attracted to the traditional type of placements in Politics.

The session concluded with Philippa Sherrington (University of Warwick) providing an outline of the research undertaken through the FDTL project, supported by other members of the team (Richard Huggins, Oxford Brookes University, and Alasdair Blair, Coventry University). They demonstrated how the project advocates that placements should be of short duration (between one and eight weeks), should run during the academic year alongside a student’s programme of study, should run in the second year of study, and should be regional wherever possible. They argued how the research to date indicates the success of placements if linked to a specific module, structured by the learning outcomes of that module, and formally assessed.

Student perceptions of Placement learning - Case studies.
Several students who had undertaken a placement under the FDTL project spoke of their experiences, outlining details of their individual placements, and how the placement related to their studies. The students were Rajay Naik, David Bugg and William Trott, all from the University of Warwick. Andy Wade and Anna Jackson were both from Coventry University.

Andy wade Anna Jackson David Bugg
Rajay Naik William Trott

The Value of Placement Learning: Practitioners Perspectives- The workshop then heard the perspective of two placement providers who had worked with the FDTL project team - Elaine McGladdery (Workforce Development Advisor Coventry City Council) and Cllr Heather Johnson (Councillor, Cabinet Member for HR, Corporate and Customer Service, Coventry City Council). They felt that the placement scheme has mutual benefits for student and provider. They particularly welcomed the approach of the FDTL project in requiring a structured approach to the activities undertaken by the student during the placement. They felt that placements of a shorter duration such as one week can be more effective than longer placements where a student attends for a few hours each week over a period of months.

Caroline Gibson (previously Marsh, the FDTL Project Manager, University of Warwick) offered some additional perspectives on the practicalities of organising placements, and how it can be time-consuming but once placement providers are secured, there are economies of scale. She emphasised the importance of adequately preparing students so that they act as appropriate ambassadors for the respective University, and how in working with each student, she had observed a positive development in each student because of the placement.

Reflecting on the statement 'Placement Learning on Politics: plain frivolous?' In concluding the workshop, Philippa Sherrington felt that answers had been reached by the participants in relation to the question posed in the title of the workshop:

Essential? Yes – there are distinct and discernable intellectual and personal benefits of undertaking a placement. However, workshop participants felt that it is important not to overstate the claims and recognise that placements are not for everyone (as echoed by one of the student speakers as well)

Added-value? Yes – but only if module specific. The conclusion of the workshop is that placements may enhance student learning, but should be linked to a student’s studies, and embedded in the curriculum.

Plain frivolous? No – but we should not be over-ambitious. The consensus of the workshop participants is that at this stage in the development of placement learning within UK higher education, we should temper our ambitions – start small, allow placement schemes to take root before considering expansion, and limit the scale of activity in order to manage the practicalities of placement organisation.