Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Co-ops

October 17

Universal co-op, Minister? You first.

Back in June here in Ontario, the Premier’s Highly Skilled Workforce Expert Panel released its final report. One of the recommendations was that every Ontario high school and university student should have at least one mandatory co-op experience (i.e., once in high school, once in university college).  In a statement in the provincial legislature, the Minister of Advanced Education and Skills Development Deb Matthews essentially said she liked the recommendation and would be working in the coming months to figure out how to put it into effect.

Now, I am in favour of greater experiential learning opportunities, but there are some problems with this recommendation.  The good folks at HEQCO have already written about some of these; my concern is basically that good co-op and good internships cost a lot of money.  Students in placements need to be overseen, taught, and mentored.  They need to be given tasks which are both meaningful and correspond to actual student abilities (not easy to achieve for high school students in many workplaces).  And they need to be paid – not just because it’s the law, but because business simply won’t put in the time on students unless they have skin in the game.

Simply put, the degree of culture shift required in business to provide these kinds of meaningful work-integrated learning experiences on a universal basis is massive.  Depending on the expected length of these experiences, we could be talking about increasing opportunities by anything from tenfold to fifty-fold – we’re talking between 250,000 and 300,000 students per year having to be accommodated here.  Not impossible, but not something that will happen overnight.  If the government tries to rush into this – and by rush I mean anything on a shorter timescale than a decade or so – were going to have a real mess on our hands.  Both businesses and educational institutions are going to need a lot of time to figure out how to make this work.

In this respect I would like to make a modest proposal to government: you first.

Seriously, if this is such a great idea, then the first to pioneer it should be the Government of Ontario to pioneer it.  It’s the largest employer in the province, with something like 85,000 employees (or about 1.5% of the entire provincial workforce).  If it can’t be a success at that level, why should it be a success anywhere else?

So here’s my idea.  Since the Government of Ontario represents 1.5% of the workforce, it should immediately commit to bringing in at least 1.5% of the necessary cohort on work-integrated learning experiences next year.  By my back-of-the-envelope reckoning, that’s 4,000 students or so (call it 145 students per ministry), half of which should be from high schools and half from post-secondary institutions.

Employers everywhere are going to need to know how a big, knowledge-intensive enterprise like the Government of Ontario can crafts meaningful paid experiences for that many individuals, and provides them with the necessary support, feedback and evaluation, with minimal loss of institutional productivity or adverse effects on institutional budgets.  By being a pioneer, the Government can provide invaluable real-life advice to private and para-public sector employers about how to make this program work for everyone.

No?  You don’t think it’ll happen?

Me neither.  But it would dispel a lot of cynicism about this initiative.

November 06

What Canadians Think About Universities, and Where Canadian Universities Want To Go

A couple of quick notes about two interesting things from Universities Canada this week.

The first is the release of some public opinion polling, which they commissioned in the spring, regarding universities and other forms of higher education.  You can see the whole thing here, but I want to highlight a couple of slides, in particular.

The first is this one:

















It seems Canadians are overwhelmingly positive about most post-secondary institutions (though Quebecers clearly have a few doubts about CEGEPs).  Somewhat perplexingly, UnivCan also felt the need to test Canadians’ opinions about universities in Europe (do Canadians really have deep feelings about French grands écoles, German fachhochschulen, and Romanian politehnici?).  Mostly, though, this is all to the good.

But the more interesting set of answers is this one:


















Turns out Canadians think their universities are world-class, practical, and produce valuable research… but they also really need to change.  Which seems about right to me.  However, one wishes there might have been a follow-up: what kind of change is needed, exactly?

Often times, these kind of dissonant results (you’re great/please change) give the poll-reader a lot of room to cherry-pick.  Is UnivCan doing this?  Well, maybe.  Take a look at the new “Commitments to Canadians” the Presidents collectively issued this week.  They commit themselves to:

  • Equip all students with the skills and knowledge they need to flourish in work and life, empowering them to contribute to Canada’s economic, social, and intellectual success.
  • Pursue excellence in all aspects of learning, discovery, and community engagement.
  • Deliver a broad range of enriched learning experiences.
  • Put our best minds to the most pressing problems – whether global, national, regional, or local.
  • Help build a stronger Canada through collaboration and partnerships with the private sector, communities, government, and other educational institutions in Canada and around the world.

OK, so some of this is yadda yadda, whatever kind-of-stuff. (“pursue excellence in everything we do” is utterly void of meaning). But an emphasis on partnerships is good, as is the commitment to preparing students for work & life – in that order.  Something stronger on internships and co-ops would have been better: both UC Chair Elizabeth Cannon and UC President Paul Davidson have spoken a lot about co-ops in recent speeches, but a specific commitment to them is lacking in the actual statement.  That’s too bad: co-ops and internships have the potential to be a genuine and unique value proposition for Canadian higher education; our universities do a lot more of it than those in other developed countries.  And pretty much everyone loves them, bar the sniffy types who disdain them as “mere training”.

The issue is follow-through, of course, and Lord knows shifting institutional cultures ain’t easy.  But one gets the sense that Canadian universities are absorbing the change message, and acting upon it.  That’s good news.

Have a good weekend.

December 21

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

I haven’t written about MOOCs in awhile, mostly because I’m finding the whole discussion pretty tedious.  They’re an interesting addition to the spectrum of continuing education offerings, and they’ll exist so long as venture capitalists and large, big-brand universities feel like subsidizing the hell out of them. Period.

The supposed “value” of MOOCs is that they deliver the same old lecture-driven process at a cheaper price.  But what should be our real priority right now: Making education cheaper, or finding ways to deliver greater value?

Imagine you’re in the early 1950s, and someone gives you the task of saving be-bop from the predations of rock and roll.  And suppose that same person hands you some piece of technology from 2012, which can deliver be-bop to the masses, at a cheaper price:  MP3s, live streaming shows, that kind of thing.  With this, you could make be-bop accessible at anytime, anywhere, and maybe even for free!  But Be-bop’s decline had nothing to do with being too expensive;  Buddy Holly was still going to kick its behind, because he had become the more relevant market choice.

In many ways, the same is true of education.  The fact that we can make the existing model of education cheaper doesn’t adress the issue of relevancy – focusing on cost when relevance is the key issue is misguided, and a distraction.

Undergraduate education has always been about preparing people for the labour market.  Back when it was a pursuit for people who either had hereditary wealth or were heading into guaranteed spots in the public service, we could pretend that higher education was about seeking Truth.  But if we’re honest, all those Truth-seekers ended up getting a pretty good financial return on their educational investments because their degree certified them as being significantly brighter than their non-degree-earning peers.

But when 70% of the youth population has some form of post-secondary education, that deal no longer works.  Having a degree no longer proves that you’re among the best and the brightest.  Graduates need something more.  And that “something more” is being a person who is engaged, effective and innovative.  When parents send their kids off to school, that’s really what their hoping their little ones will become.  Now this doesn’t mean that kids can’t study philosophy on the way to being engaged, effective, and innovative; it does, however, mean that PSE institutions need to think a lot harder about how to give students those skills.

It’s not rocket science.  Waterloo does it through its co-op programs.  Ryerson is doing it through its Digital Media Zone.  Polytechnics like NAIT who use applied research projects to drive curriculum are doing it, too.  Mostly, institutions are doing it by acknowledging the pedagogical value of interactions with the world of work, and opening themselves up to collaboration with businesses and government agencies to deliver it.  And its working.

Engaged, effective, and innovative students.  Let’s make it a watchword for 2013.

November 24

Beyond Co-op (Part Two)

Yesterday, I wrote about the results of our study on work-integrated learning, where we reported on the results of a survey asking students to tell us how much they thought their various jobs helped them in terms of reinforcing concepts learned in class, obtaining workplace skills and career preparation. In particular, I emphasized that while co-op programs came more or less top of the pack on these measures, two other types of employment were found capable of delivering very similar kinds of results and that some important policy implications followed from this.

The first of these employment types were summer jobs where students indicated that their field of study was the only or the best possible field for the job they held. These jobs, on average, were rated by students as being slightly better than co-op placements in terms of reinforcing learning and career preparation.

This poses a bit of a challenge to the idea of work-integrated learning, because it suggests that, provided they can get study-related jobs in the first place, students are capable of doing the integration of working and learning on their own. Co-op, in other words, may be a superlative way of getting students into study-related temporary jobs, but it’s not as clear that the institution has much role in actually helping students make sense of their work experiences.

The second type of work that had surprisingly good results in our survey were RAships and academic fieldwork. These aren’t always described as being “work-integrated learning” because they can be seen as too theoretical and don’t involve outside employers (i.e., the “real life” elements that are sometimes thought of as being key to the success of programs like co-op). Yet their benefits are of a similar order of magnitude.

What’s important about this is that it opens up the possibility for more co-op like experiences in fields of study where co-op has had difficulty taking root. Co-op isn’t simple to implement – even if it’s only implemented superficially, it requires a wholesale reorganization of the academic calendar that few institutions are willing to implement. But RAships and academic fieldwork don’t require the same kind of disruption and can be implemented across more or less all fields of study.

Co-op is too good an idea to keep it restricted – as it too often is – to just a few fields of study. If institutions can, at relatively low cost, provide more students co-op-like benefits by making RAships more widely available, it must be worth a try, no?

November 23

Beyond Co-op (Part One)

One perennial topic of interest in Canadian higher education (particularly during recessions) is the subject of Work-Integrated Learning – that is, work experience which is organized by an educational institution and which is incorporated into a student’s educational programme. Today, HESA is releasing a paper by Miriam Kramer and me on how students’ work experiences stack up in terms of learning outcomes that contain some interesting results.

We asked a little over 2,100 students about a variety of work experiences: summer jobs, part-time in-school work, volunteer positions, TAships, RAships, co-ops and various forms of what we call “internships” (which includes practicums, placements, etc.). Specifically, we asked them how much each of the of these experiences might have helped them in terms of reinforcing concepts learned in class, obtaining workplace skills and preparing students for future work. Our goal here was to avoid simply measuring the benefits of programs like co-ops and internships, because it’s pretty clear that there is educational value in all forms of work; what’s important is rather to look at the value-added of such programs.

What we found was that in terms of obtaining workplace skills, students reported gaining them more or less equally across all types of jobs – there was no special benefit to work-integrated learning programs. On the other hand, when it comes to reinforcing concepts learned in class and preparing students for future work, there is a clear hierarchy among types of work. Not surprisingly, summer and in-school work were seen as being at the bottom, with co-ops and internships at the top.

That academic programs which mix class-room learning and “real-world” jobs fare best on these measures isn’t a surprise, but two of our other findings were. The first was that research assistantships/academic fieldwork were rated almost as highly as co-ops in terms of reinforcing academic concepts and career preparation. The second was that while summer jobs as a whole rated pretty lousy on those metrics, for the one in six students who said their field of study was the only or best possible one for the summer job they held, the results were indistinguishable from those of co-op programs.

In other words, while co-op is indeed pretty cool, it is possible to replicate co-op’s successes through other means. The high scores received by RAships suggest that placement in “real world” jobs are not key to co-op’s success, and the fact that some types of summer jobs can do the same suggests that co-op’s successes don’t depend solely on the mediation of an institution.

Give the paper a read today. More on the policy implications tomorrow.