Canadian PSE has seen a surge in interest toward work-integrated learning (WIL) in recent years, with employers, governments, and institutional stakeholders touting the many benefits that this real-world, hands-on learning can provide. Some have even called for WIL to become a universal and mandatory part of all PSE.
But are Canada’s postsecondary students on the same page when it comes to the benefits of WIL?
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: also yes, with a few interesting buts.
To better understand real students’ attitudes toward WIL, The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario partnered with Academica Group in 2016 to survey Ontario students using Academica’s StudentVu panel (See Notes).
On the whole, nearly all college students (95%) and university students (93%) surveyed said that they believed WIL has a positive impact on career opportunities after graduation. A majority of both groups also believed that WIL would have a strong or slightly positive impact on their opportunities to pursue graduate studies (76% and 67%, respectively).
But this kind of feedback only scratches the surface of what students think of WIL. To dive deeper, we asked students who’d participated or planned to participate in WIL why they believed it was such a good investment of their time.
For college students who’d participated or planned to participate in the future, making contacts for a future job search was the most commonly cited reason for pursuing a WIL opportunity (64%), followed closely by:
- Better understand their field of study (63%);
- Improve job prospects (53%); and
- Better understand their career interests (51%).
For university students, the picture was a little different. The most commonly cited reason for pursuing WIL among this group was to improve job prospects (61%) and better understand their career interests (61%), followed by:
- Make contacts for a future job search (58%); and
- Better understand their field of study (54%).
These numbers show that making contacts for a future job search is more commonly cited by college students as a reason to pursue WIL, while better understanding one’s career interests and improving job prospects in general are more frequently mentioned by university students. College students who had participated or planned to participate in WIL were also more likely to say that better understanding their field of study was a reason for pursuing WIL (a nine percentage point difference).
While many respondents reported facing no negative challenges while participating in WIL (38% of college students and 27% of university students), a notable proportion of participants reported experiencing some form of challenge.
The most common challenge reported by both college and university students was not receiving adequate pay for the work they performed (24% of both groups reported this). For college students, not receiving mentorship in the workplace was an additional challenge (cited by 18%), while for university students, not being able to take part in meaningful work was a commonly cited issue (19%). 17% of respondents in both groups indicated that the work they performed was not challenging enough.
While many respondents indicated that they’d either participated in WIL or planned to do so, 16% of college students and 29% of university students indicated that they would not be participating in WIL.
When asked what challenges might be faced by students pursuing WIL, nearly half of both college students and university students who didn’t plan to participate in WIL said that participants might have to quit a paying job in order to take part in these opportunities (49% for both). Nearly half of the college group also felt that students pursuing WIL might have a poor quality mentor in the workplace (49%), while many in the university group felt that the experience might impede a student’s ability to finish their degree on time (41%). Both groups expressed concern about not receiving adequate pay during a WIL opportunity (47% and 43%, respectively).
The Ideal WIL Experience
So what did students imagine the ideal WIL experience to be? College students reported that an ideal WIL experience would:
- Be one semester long (42%);
- Occur near the end of a program (38%) or throughout an entire program (32%);
- Be evaluated by the supervisor/employer at the work site (76%); and
- Be located in a private sector business or industry (30%)
For university students, the ideal WIL experience would:
- Be one semester long (50%);
- Occur throughout an entire program (34%) or in the middle of a program (31%);
- Be evaluated by the supervisor/employer at the work site (72%); and
- Be located in a private sector business or industry (32%)
Proponents of WIL would do well to note the difference in ideal timing for college students, a plurality of whom want WIL to occur near the end of a program, and university students, who tend to prefer WIL occurring throughout an entire program or in the middle of a program.
Finally, we asked students who had participated in WIL to say which aspect of the experience they found to be most beneficial. In this case, the two clear winners for both college and university students were:
- Applying theory/skills learned in the classroom to a work setting (68% college and 63% university); and
- The work assigned was relevant to their field of study (69% college and 58% university)
Anyone hoping to expand or improve WIL opportunities in Canadian higher ed would do well do see how aligned their vision is with the desires of real-world students.
While a vast majority of students accept that there are benefits to WIL, institutions, governments, and employers need to be informed on which benefits students prize most highly, as well as which drawbacks are being experienced. Finally, institutions, governments, and employers need to be clear on which forms of WIL produce the best results for different groups of students, while working to address the most commonly cited barriers and challenges students associate with WIL.
For this study, Academica Group invited 2,528 members of its StudentVu Panel who were currently attending an Ontario postsecondary institution to participate in the survey. Respondents were able to participate regardless of their history with and/or intent to participate in WIL. The online survey was in field from October 18 to October 24, 2016. 915 valid responses were included in the final analysis, of which 257 were college students and 658 were university students.