This year, instead of going into my third and final year at university, I chose to undertake an industry-based work placement. Industry is a funny word to describe my placement, as it conjures up images of jobs in heavy industry, and quite the opposite of going to work everyday in a suit or smart clothes and engaging with hundreds of different people. My first placement is at the Upper Wensleydale Community Partnership based in Hawes, deep in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. I spend most days working in the office doing everything, including working in the library, on the Richmondshire District Council Desk, and booking and organising community transport for people who live in the area or are just visiting. About once a week, I shadow Councillor Blackie (County, District and Parish Councillor) to different meetings about anything from health scrutiny meetings to Local Government Association branch conferences. I am also involved in the running of a community land trust, which is in the process of building affordable housing in Arkengarthdale, and the Good Life Project, which is focused on making growing older in the Upper Dales easier and more enjoyable, which we have meetings roughly once a month for.

I started my first placement at Hawes Community Office the first week in August this year, two months before anyone started back at university. While everyone else was travelling and enjoying their summer, I was working. Now before I go any further, I have now done two months of placement at Hawes and I love it, it’s varied and challenging and I have never been treated like “just an intern” or spent a whole day making tea and photocopying – though I do have to do these things sometimes, like any employee does. Placement has pushed me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to network with a lot of people who are currently doing the kind of jobs I would like to do in the future, and as my boyfriend keeps telling me “it’s who you know, not what you know”. He is completely right. Since I’ve started placement I have been offered other placements and even potential future jobs because I’ve met people I would never cross paths with in normal life.

This is all wonderful, it really is, but the flip side is that because I want to work in the public sector, both my current placement and my second one at the city council are unpaid. When I arranged my placements back in the spring, this was fine, student finance had promised me my usual loan entitlement, and for my first placement I was living at home, an obvious way to save money.

The reality has been far from what was promised, student finance are currently paying me less than a third of what they promised and my application is currently under review, as it has been for over 16 weeks. So to supplement my income and afford to live, I’m having to work a part-time job, which is fine, but part-time jobs just want you to come in and work. This is resulting in me working approximately 25 hours a week at placement (because it’s unpaid I only have to do 3 days a week) and then doing another 20-30 hours on top of that at my part-time job. Added to this, I still have a 500 words minimum essay to write every month for university, a 1000 word essay at the end of each three-month block to reflect on what I’ve learnt, PowerPoint presentations and other evidence of what I am doing on placement, such as a daily log book.

This article is not to complain about having to do university work while on placement or about having to work a part-time job while doing it either. This article is about the fact that student finance seem to have a complete lack of understanding and empathy about the fact that unpaid placements exist – and that they are an excellent use of a students’ sandwich year. Unpaid placements enrich students understanding about their course, help students decide about what they might to do for their future career and also, as I mentioned earlier, the connections and contacts that students develop while on placement are invaluable for their future careers. Thus, I got my placement in Hawes through a contact I made while serving as a Town Councillor during my year out before university.

I was promised my full loan from student finance because I am working for local authorities, who largely can’t afford to pay a placement student, it’s one of SFE conditions as to whether you are allowed your full loan entitlement while on placement. I meet this criteria and I have still been given the generic loan entitlement of someone on placement of £2,415. This is the same amount given to students on paid placements which can earn anywhere up to £18-21,000, most earn approximately £15,000, but that is still £15,000 more than those on unpaid placements earn.

Since originally writing this article and after four months of battling with student finance, I have actually been given my usual loan entitlement. This doesn’t happen though for the thousands of fashion students who undertake unpaid placements every year and students on a variety of other university courses who choose to take unpaid placements because they offer better opportunities than the paid placements on offer to them. Sandwich placements are becoming increasingly popular and students on unpaid placements should be allowed their usual loan entitlement, as a placement is no less enriching for that student’s university experience than traditional classroom-based teaching.

I have no regrets about choosing to take a placement year, I am thoroughly enjoying it and would highly recommend it to anyone who is considering one. I would hope in the future, though, that it is far less difficult for students to get the funding they need to have an enjoyable and enriching sandwich year.