‘Non-traditional’ students find it more difficult to find work placements in the arts and cultural sector, says Equality Challenge Unit

The arts and cultural sector has been identified as a key growth area in the current recession, but a new research study shows that pathways to working in it are unequal.

Unpaid work placements and informal recruitment methods mean that entry into employment in the arts and cultural sectors is harder for students who are not from white, middle class backgrounds, finds a report published by higher education equality body Equality Challenge Unit.

Work placements are considered a vital way of gaining experience in the arts and cultural sector, and they play a central role in increasing a student’s employability. Disabled students, black and minority ethnic students, those with caring responsibilities and students from disadvantaged backgrounds face significant barriers gaining work placements.

The research, Work placements in the arts and cultural sector: Diversity, equality and access, was conducted by researchers at the Institute for Policy Studies in Education, London Metropolitan University. The research found that certain groups of students face extra challenges in accessing and completing a work placement.

Kate Byford, senior policy adviser, Equality Challenge Unit, said:

‘The importance of work placements can’t be underestimated for students looking to get ahead in the arts, media and other cultural sectors. In the current economic downturn, it is anticipated that even more students will depend on work placements as a way to get a foot in the door.

However, finding placements can be difficult if you don’t have contacts in the industry, or the ability to take unpaid placements, or live in big cities where arts and cultural employers are more prevalent. If you can’t afford to live in London without a job, have financial responsibilities or are a carer, for example, then your options for placements are greatly reduced.
We also found that once on a placement, the work culture and lack of diversity in the sector means that it can be more difficult for certain students and result in a feeling that they don’t ‘fit in’.

Higher education institutions need to recognise the barriers and work to provide support for students, both in finding placements in the first instance, and ensuring that the student and the employer get the most out of the placement experience. We have developed the staff and student toolkits to support institutions in achieving this.’

The research team based in IPSE London Metropolitan University were Kim Allen, Jocey Quinn, Sumi Hollingworth and Anthea Rose. Commenting on their findings, Dr Kim Allen said:

‘Recent press attention to the exploitation of students through long and unpaid internships, whilst valuable, paints only half of the picture. Addressing students as a homogenous mass, these debates often neglect that some groups of students fare much worse in this culture of unpaid internships than others. Our research shows that some students face multiple barriers to taking up and surviving work placements in the sector.

That some students feel that they ‘don’t fit’ in the sector as a result of their work placement experience is a real challenge for overcoming the current lack of diversity in the sector and achieving the ‘fair access’ to the professions outlined in Alan Milburn’s report last year.’

Professor Jocey Quinn (now Plymouth university) said:

‘We found that inequalities in student work placements are a symptom of a much deeper problem in the arts and cultural sector. The stereotype of the aggressive, ever-available and mobile cultural worker with no responsibilities is so embedded that anyone outside that norm is seen as a problem. The irony is that whilst ignoring inequalities, employers also long for diversity to pep up their products and reach new markets.’

Based on the recommendations of the report, ECU has published two toolkit leaflets prepared specifically for careers and placement staff, and for students looking to undertake work placements. These leaflets will raise awareness of the equality issues and how staff can support all students on work placements, and advise students on getting the most out of their time with an employer.

Work placements in the arts and cultural sector: Diversity, equality and access can be downloaded from ECU’s website: www.ecu.ac.uk/publications/work-placements-report. The report includes comments from students on their work placement experiences.

Staff and student toolkits are available from ECU’s website: https://www.ecu.ac.uk/publications/diversity-equality-and-access-toolkits


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