London Metropolitan University Research Institutes

Equality Issues in Higher Education Work Placements in the Arts and Cultural Sector

Funded by:

Equality Challenge Unit (ECU)


July 2009 - March 2010


The arts and cultural sector - including design, film, music, fashion, TV and computer games - is the fastest growing professional area in the UK.  Yet the recent all-party report chaired by Alan Milburn MP, Unleashing Aspirations, demonstrates that for many students, the chance of getting a job in this sector are more limited than ever. Those with families with high income and good networks now dominate the creative industries, where unpaid internships are becoming the route into employment. For black and minority ethnic, disabled and women students the barriers can be even higher.  However, evidence suggests that HEI’s can play an integral role in supporting these groups into employment by fostering positive work placement experiences.

Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) commissioned IPSE to conduct research into the equality issues associated with higher education work placements undertaken in the arts and cultural sector, with the aim of developing practical tools to address the challenges and inequalities in the sector.
This research took place in 5 HEIs across England and Wales who offer courses in disciplines aligned with the arts and cultural sector.  Interviews were conducted with black and minority ethnic (BME) students, disabled students and students in disciplines where there are gender imbalances who had undertaken work placements in the arts and cultural sector.  Interviews were also conducted with careers/ placement staff; students; and a number of employers across the arts and cultural sector who host work placements.


Summary of research findings:

  • While students are strongly encouraged, if not expected, to undertake work placements, some students experience inequality of access to opportunities to undertake formally supported placements.
  • There are deeply embedded notions of the ‘ideal student’ and ‘ideal work placement candidate’, which favour middle-class, white, male and non-disabled students.
  • Great value is placed on self-directed placements, accompanied by an expectation on students to be self-motivated and driven in both finding placements and making the most of them. Not all students can take up such an approach.
  • Locating a ‘good’ placement and getting the best from it depends on students’ access to social, economic and cultural resources, such as access to industry networks, the money to undertake unpaid or lengthy placements, and knowing how to ‘sell yourself’ to employers. These resources are not distributed equally.
  • The normalisation of unpaid placements leads many students to self-select on the basis of their financial circumstances, and does little to address the predominantly middle-class character of the workforce.
  • Students from equality groups do experience problems: they may feel they do not fit into an all-white environment, need to hide their disability, or have to adopt masculine behaviour to be accepted.
  • There is an absence of a language of inequality, making it difficult to identify and discuss equality issues in the work placement process.
  • Employers and HEIs have equality policies in place, but it is unclear how far these are embedded in placement practices and procedures.
  • The research reveals a paradoxical situation. In the creative industries, unspoken assumptions about success lead workers to regard issues of race, gender, disability and class that emerge in work placements as students’ own personal problems that they should solve by themselves. However, there is a strong desire within the sector to capitalise on opportunities offered by diversity and to make the most of this future workforce. In order to maximise the value of diversity, work placement providers need to proactively recognise and address inequalities and to question unspoken assumptions

Summary of Recommendations:

Work placements need to be recognised as an equality issue. For HEIs to develop more inclusive and effective work placement practices and policies, there is a need for:

  • collaborative working and reviewing of procedures
  • developing a language of equality and diversity
  • better support for students

Collaborative working and reviewing procedures

  • Work placements need to be reflected in HEIs’ existing equality schemes and coupled with systematic and joined-up procedures. These should be developed through collaborative working and dialogue between all relevant staff and agencies within the HEI to identify and address equality issues.
  • HEIs should review work placement arrangements and policies to address equality issues in accordance with guidance provided by the existing public sector equality duties. Central to this is the importance of developing procedures to gather feedback from students and to monitor the take-up and impact of work placements by different equality groups. Further to this, HEIs should consider developing an equality policy that is specific to work placements.
  • Equality procedures need to go beyond dealing with overt cases of discrimination to recognising and attempting to overcome the ways in which institutional systems and structures for work placements might create inequalities.
  • Equality and diversity training for all staff who are involved in work placements, whether directly or indirectly, should help to address equality issues such as the different resources available to students which help or hinder their success.

Developing equality and diversity discourse

  • HEIs should consider how they can assist students to discuss, identify and address issues of inequality. This can help to remove some of the stigma around ‘complaining’ about employers, and minimise students’ fears of talking about challenging experiences. Creating effective mechanisms for students to feed back and share their experiences is central to this.
  • Similarly, HEIs should develop dialogue with employers about equality issues and the opportunities for diversity within the sector.
  • Embedding the language of equality and diversity more broadly within the arts and cultural studies curriculum will enable students to think about equality and diversity now, and the potential for transforming and having a positive impact on practices within their future workplace and as cultural producers. This might take the shape of a module on equality issues in the arts and cultural sector.

Better support for students

  • As HEIs’ resources to manage work placements can be restricted, they should assess how resources may best be used to provide maximum support for students on placement. This could be through a placement mentor who maintains contact and makes visits, or through online forums enabling students to keep in contact with staff and other students while on placements
  • HEIs should work to identify and widely promote funding opportunities for placements, such as bursaries, Access to Work funds or other government initiatives, as well as schemes specifically targeted at particular groups, such as BME or disabled students.
  • To increase students’ awareness of their legal rights and acceptable practices regarding pay, hours and fair treatment in the workplace, HEIs should include this information in seminars and tutorials. Simply posting information on careers websites and in placement packs is not sufficient to prepare students.
  • HEIs should encourage dialogue between work placement staff, careers staff and academics to share essential knowledge to support students when looking for placements.



The final report and toolkits can be found on the ECU project webpage:

Project team

The research was led by Dr Kim Allen and Prof. Jocey Quinn with Sumi Hollingworth and Dr Anthea Rose.

IPSE research clusters themes:

Higher Education Equity

Gender and Education

Ethnicity and Education


Kim Allen


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