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The courses are there, but not the jobs

For the first time there is no requirement for me to undertake a visit to students on placement in my part of the world this summer. There are none.

In years past this was a ritual in which one attempted to ensure that the arrangement between trainee and employer was equitable. Balance was important because the courses were structured so as to build on the knowledge gained when the placement was at an end, while the good faith of employers was sustained by the ability of the students to deliver on their side of the bargain thanks to the quality of course content thus far. The visit was an essential procedure in ensuring that this was the case.

The picture has changed in five years, because over that time neither side has been able to underwrite this tacit guarantee of performance. The rush to commonality has meant that specialist skills for particular professions have had to give way to anaemic versions that are of minimal value to anyone on a common course. Everybody is learning something about other people's professions and insufficient of their own. They are thus not equipped to offer an employer anything worth while as a quid pro quo for their in-house learning.

Employers for their part have been so squeezed financially that many can no longer afford what had hitherto been perceived as a small sacrifice, if that. I well remember visiting one office where the principal spent half of the meeting explaining how hard it was to find the cash to pay our trainee and the rest of the time enthusing over his recent holiday in Mauritius which must have cost three times what the student would earn in a six-month sojourn.

When applicants for our courses came for interview - what ever happened to that procedure? - a regular concern was the securing of a placement. Not to worry, we would tell them, if you cannot find something suitable yourself, we will ensure that you are placed because in 15 years of running these courses every single student has been accommodated. Now there can be no assurances.

Nevertheless the marketing of many courses carries reference to work experience components. It is a good selling point because disillusioned youth thinks that if a placement is available, there are chances that it will lead to permanent employment. Surely this is a dangerous path for the institutions to tread. If a course is constructed around a placement, it follows that if a student does not succeed in securing one, the course is incomplete.

No doubt it will be carefully explained that no guarantees can be given but it has always seemed an unsound premise, even when the training opportunities were abundant, to place the responsibility on the consumers for locating an integral part of the product that they were being sold. In the good old days, this may have been a technicality, but not any more.

There is something of a personal dimension here because a relative has just completed a postgraduate diploma course of this kind. He duly secured a placement with the aid of the university concerned and has now been offered full-time employment.

He is delighted for himself but is disaffected for his classmates. The fact is that of the 30-odd enrolled on the course, he was alone in securing a placement. He has no reason to believe that any of them joined for a reason other than the prospect of eventual employment which they hoped against the evidence that the university could tap into where they could not.

One out of a possible 30 hardly rates a pass mark.

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