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Out of debt and into industry

As student indebtedness grows, university and college careers offices are having to deal with a flow of people seeking sponsorships.

The number of sponsorships offered by companies and financial institutions is steadily increasing. However, the nature of student sponsorship is changing.

Companies that would have offered sponsorship throughout the whole of an undergraduate degree are now targeting students in their penultimate or final year. The sponsorship is shorter and therefore cheaper, and students midway through a degree are likely to have a clearer idea of the career they wish to pursue and be more committed to the firm supporting them.

Faced with the probability of being at least Pounds 2,000 in debt when they leave university, many students are now aware that sponsorship through the latter part of their studies is an increasing possibility, offering the benefits of paid work experience and a tax-free annual bursary of about Pounds 1,000 per annum.

Graduates with relevant work experience are at an advantage in the competitive graduate jobs market. Sponsorship offers a chance to wedge a foot in the door.

Marks Spencer, along with nine textile companies including Courtaulds and Coats Viyella, offer their Sponsored Placement Scheme to textile students at six universities. Students need to apply for this in the first term of their second year and are required to spend the whole of their third year in industry as a salaried employee on two six-month placements.

Students accepted on to the scheme are immediately given a one-off payment of Pounds 500 and a further bursary of Pounds 1,500 in their fourth year back at university.

Alison Barry, aged 20, a textiles student at Leeds University, is working on her first placement with a fabrics technologist at the Marks Spencer HQ in Baker Street, London. She is earning the equivalent of Pounds 14,900 per annum, though most of that is taken up with the cost of London living. She said: "I'm not eligible for a grant so this is a chance to have my own money. But I really applied for the advantage of having industrial experience. The course we study is so broad, there are so many paths we could take, this gives me a chance to see what it's all about. There's no commitment on either side and I'm keeping an open mind."

Chartered accountants Arthur Andersen have this year increased the number of places on their scholarship scheme. Aiming for high-flyers with good "inter-personal and team skills", the firm takes school-leavers with a minimum of three Bs at A level and an A in GCSE mathematics.

Students follow the firm's graduate-training programme in their gap year and are provided with a Pounds 1,000 travel bursary to use before starting university. Once in college they receive a Pounds 1,200 bursary along with six weeks of work experience annually. However, progress is closely monitored. The sponsorship is reviewed each year and depends on students "achieving both at work and university".

As in the past, companies offering sponsorship to engineering students dominate, but again firms want to take on students half-way through their courses, rather than sponsoring them from school.

Dr Jack Hale, a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Newcastle University, claimed it was a way for firms to cut expenses - "undergraduates cost less than graduates" - as well as allowing companies "to take a good look at potential graduate employees". He said: "We do a straight three-year course but more and more companies are wanting to take students on mid-course. At present we can find more companies than students."

As a way of encouraging more school-leavers to take up engineering places in college and university, the Engineering Council has for the past three years offered a bursary of Pounds 500 per year for all students with two As and a B who choose engineering degree courses.

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