Increasingly, universities are expected to prepare students to transition into the workforce with generic graduate capabilities. These include being able to recognise and mitigate potential risks, solve problems effectively, and manage diversity and ambiguity.
Another important role of universities is to provide opportunities for students to share and review their workplace experiences so they can transform their learning experiences into practice knowledge. This latter role often fails to gain the curriculum space and the attention it deserves.
Work Integrated Learning (WIL) refers to university initiatives such as internships, clinical and fieldwork. Work integrated learning isn’t new to university education, but is on the rise as universities adopt strategic targets for student workplace participation as an element of their studies.
There is considerable evidence of the positive impact of authentic work-based participation within courses from multiple studies. Based on this, a general understanding now prevails that university education should contribute to graduate employability, and that Australia’s future depends on strong partnerships between universities and industry.
Where universities adopt a highly deliberate, whole of enterprise approach to WIL, including educational quality and forming mature reciprocal partnerships with industries, the benefits are realised for all stakeholders and the risks sufficiently mitigated.
What do students get out of work placement?
• develop their professional identity
• advance their theoretical knowledge and transferable skills
• communicate effectively to people in diverse roles
• engage in teamwork, problem posing and solving, and self management
• enhance their digital literacy skills, and
• understand at a practice level what ethical practice means.
But WIL should not be limited to learning to work and being ready for graduate employment. Ideally, engaging in workplace practices while studying exposes students to diverse and increased learning opportunities that are not possible in formal classrooms. It could be argued, from an educational viewpoint, that the primary purpose of WIL is “working to learn” and, in doing so, students might “learn to work”.
Academics who are closely aligned to professional practices in health professions, engineering, teaching and social work also value work integrated learning highly for its capacity to enable students to transfer theoretical learning to the real world.
What’s in it for employers?
Practical experience helps businesses in recruitment processes, as they can observe first-hand the work readiness of future graduates. It also helps graduates make a smoother transition into paid employment.
While STEM-related industries are far less likely to host science students in a WIL experience, one study found a significant group of employers identified three motivations to do so. One focused on social principles and social standing – firstly, to give back to their industry or profession and to meet their corporate responsibilities and secondly, to improve their corporate image.
Another was a desire to advance their businesses. Firstly, by being better able to recruit graduates in the future and, secondly, by gaining access to new thinking and ideas based on emerging research gained through deeper ties with universities.
A 2015 study identified reasons employers might not want to provide WIL experiences. First, they lacked clear understanding of WIL and what it involved. Employers also expressed doubts about the potential return on investment regarding the costs to productivity when supporting students. They also perceived a general reluctance within their organisations for taking on students.
WIL can help industry reduce costs and risk in recruitment. But this potential benefit also underpins a reluctance to take international students who are obliged to return to their home country after graduation.
A similar reluctance exists to take on students with low social capital or students who have disabilities. This reflects the difficulties students from marginalised backgrounds experience in gaining graduate level employment. But universities have a commitment to inclusiveness and equity.
Universities perceive including WIL as one means of attracting high performing students. As a result, WIL tacitly becomes conflated with marketing strategies for graduate employability, graduate employment and gaining a return on investment for students and industry.
What constitutes quality?
Largely, it’s important WIL programs enhance but not compromise universities’ educational mission. They should focus on knowledge building and preparing graduates to make effective contributions to society.
All students should be given the opportunity to participate, especially those who come to university with low social capital. This should be done so that all can graduate with robust knowledge and productive social networks that reach beyond university.
The partnerships with industry should be deliberately reciprocal, so the WIL process transforms all involved. There should be public recognition of successful innovation and effectiveness by students, industry and universities in the enactment of WIL.
To achieve these qualities, university leadership is critical. Universities Australia has taken important steps in this regard, which individual institutions would do well to replicate.
A cultural shift is also required in industry, the professions and among university programs to support the aims of these programs. Generating evidence to support the benefits requires big data and long-term national studies, not the atomistic, short-term single program or institution ones that prevail.
Two examples of an effective approach
Newcastle University has had a highly visible WIL program since the mid 2000s. Their strategic direction for WIL is particularly focused on ensuring it’s available for all students, and on their deep engagement with their workplace partners.
Macquarie University also has a “whole of institution process” in their PACE (Participation and Community Engagement) program. This project is well documented and so deeply embedded in the institutional mission of the university that, despite leadership changes, it has flourished.