We take a look at construction degree course sponsorship – one of the best ways of avoiding a mountainous student debt

Doing a degree is an expensive business. The average debt for people graduating this summer is a horrifying £12,180. So, wouldn’t it be nice if someone else offered to pay a hefty chunk of that – and give you some work experience along the way?

Many construction firms are willing to do just that, and in a variety of different ways.

“We sponsor 30 students every year in engineering, quantity surveying and construction management degrees,” says Julie Skinner, Taylor Woodrow’s management development manager. She is responsible for overseeing the 120 undergraduates the company is sponsoring at any one time. “The only stipulation is that the course must be accredited by the relevant professional body.

“Our involvement starts the month before they go to university, with an induction to tell them about the programme and a chance to meet their peers. Then, in November of their first year, they meet their liaison manager to talk about how they’re getting on, and in April they do a three-day health and safety course to prepare them for the first of their eight-week summer placements.

“The placements are on site, on live projects, and not only are they are paid but they are given objectives so that they are doing proper work while they’re there.

“We also take them on for the six- or 12-month placement that is the filling in their sandwich course, and they are paid for that, too, plus £250 towards their tuition fees for that year.

“They get a bursary of £1500 per year, and are monitored throughout their course to make sure they are performing well enough to stay on the scheme.

“In their final year, we offer them a job on the condition that they get at least a 2:2. They’re not obliged to accept it but they usually do – this year, only one person declined.”

We operate in a global marketplace ... Trainees rotate around departments so they experience all areas of the business

Chris Marsh, HR director, Faithful & Gould

Project and cost management consultant Faithful & Gould, part of the WS Atkins Group, also sponsors university students. But rather than the traditional sandwich-course route, it offers full-time jobs to school-leavers and then pays for them to go to university at the same time.

Chris Marsh, human resources director at Faithful & Gould, explains: “They go to college one day a week and work for us for the other four. They shadow more senior team members, going to meetings and visiting sites.

“We operate in a global marketplace, involved in highly complex schemes with multi-million pound budgets - some of the world’s most familiar construction projects. Trainees rotate around departments so they experience all areas of the business.”

The trainees are paid around £10,000 a year to begin with, although this depends on the area of the country they are in, and the salary is reviewed every year. It’s a permanent job, so it comes with the same benefits package that all the other employees get. It doesn’t end when the course does either, although people who leave the company within a year of completing their degree are usually expected to pay back a portion of the money Faithful & Gould has invested in their training.

But although the scheme will save students money, it’s not an easy option. Marsh warns: “There’s real competition for places. You must get on to an RICS-accredited building surveying or quantity surveying degree course, which requires good A level results, and since study is part-time, it takes longer to obtain the degree – five years instead of four.”

For those who want to come out of their degree with not only the qualifications but the experience that employers look for, however, the scheme is well worth the extra time. And with a guaranteed job at the end of it, as with all degree sponsorship schemes, you can’t lose.

Young, gifted and rich: Willmott Dixon's undergraduate trainees

Contractor Willmott Dixon carried out a survey of graduates that had joined the company this year.

Of the students it had sponsored through university, none had any debts; of the non-sponsored graduates, debts ranged from £6000 to £25,000.

As well as being debt-free, the sponsored graduates also managed to avoid the summer scramble for jobs by moving straight into project management roles at the company where they are earning an average of £23,700 a year plus company car.

Willmott Dixon takes on average 15 sponsored undergraduates each year in either quantity surveying or construction management. Study is undertaken on a day-release basis over five years, with one day a week at university and four days on site, which allows them to put theory into practice. Gemma Sapiano, 23, was sponsored by Willmott Dixon and has just graduated from the University of Luton with a first class BSc in Construction Management. "Willmott Dixon not only paid for my tuition fees and gave me a book allowance, but also paid my salary throughout my training period.
I received a company car two years into training," she says. "The practical element of my training combined well with the theory that I was learning at university and I believe it really made a difference to the grade I achieved".