Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Work-Integrated Learning

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.

June 15

A Canadian Accomplishment

Often, I think, I am seen as a bit of a downer on Canada.  It goes with the territory: my role in Canadian higher education is i) “the guy who knows what’s going on in other countries and ii) “the guy who pokes the bear”.  So frequently I ending up writing blogs saying why isn’t Canada doing X or wouldn’t it be great if we were more like Y, and people get the impression I’m down on the North.

Not true.  I think we have a pretty good system, one most of the world would envy if we could ever stop admiring our minute inter-provincial differences and explain our system properly.  Among OECD countries, we’re always in the top third of pretty much any higher education metric you want to use.  Never at the very top, but reasonably close.  It’s just that it’s not cheap, is all.  We’re never going to win any prizes for efficiency; countries like Israel, the Netherlands and Australia perform far better on those metrics.

But there is one area in which Canada does a fantastic job and doesn’t even realise it.  And that is the extent to which it has a strong culture of work-oriented higher education which is matched by few other countries.

Let’s start with our colleges and polytechnics, which for the most part deliver labour market-oriented professional education at a level known by UNESCO and OECD as “Type 5B” (bachelor’s degree programs are called “Type A”).  Among OECD countries only Japan and Korea do a greater proportion of young people have this kind of education.

Figure 1: Level 5 (post-secondary education) Attainment Rates of 25-34 year olds, Select OECD Countries



We sometimes hear complaints from colleges and polytechnics about not getting enough respect, but the fact is, Canada has arguably the best-funded and most successful non-university post-secondary education system in the world.  We should say it, and celebrate it.

What about the university system, you say?  Well, the University of Cincinnati may have invented co-op education, but I don’t think there’s much doubt that the University of Waterloo perfected it.  Last time I checked, they were arranging over 17,000 co-op experiences for students every year.  And institutions across the country have adopted the idea as well.  Personally, I think that’s a result of competition from our excellent college sector: it keeps universities on their toes.


And OK, it’s easy to scoff at university claims that 40% of students get some kind of work-integrated learning experience because so many of them are so short-term and of not-particularly high quality, and because at least a few universities seem to care more about classifying as things as possible as “experiential” than actually creating more such experiences: but so what?  The fact that we’re having the debate at all suggests we are on the right track.  And that’s a sight better than most other countries I could name.

Now, I know some of you are going to say “but Germany! Switzerland! Apprentices!”.  And there are some admirable things about those systems (though, as I have said before), Canadians deeply misunderstand what it is apprenticeships in Germany actually do).  Namely, they aren’t post-secondary in nature (note how low Germany’s Type B score is in the figure above); rather, they’re part of the secondary system and in many ways are designed to keep people out of the post-secondary system.  It’s hard to compare out system to theirs.

So, in sum: could we do more on experiential and work-integrated learning?  Of course we could (and should).  But stop and smell the roses: compared to most places, we do a pretty good job on this stuff.  And we should acknowledge that to ourselves even if, in true Canadian fashion, we’re a little reluctant to say so to anyone else.

July 05

Today’s Statscan Youth Jobs Report

Hi there.  Just a slight deviation from the summer publication schedule to bring you some perspective on the youth employment numbers coming out of StatsCan today.

Unless something has gone seriously gaga in the youth labour market in the past few weeks, today’s Labour Force Survey release will say that slightly over 70% of students aged 20-24 are employed and that unemployment among these students is in the 7-9% range. That sounds pretty good; the problem is that StatsCan’s definition of unemployment doesn’t even vaguely correspond to how students see the issue.

The basic problem is that StatsCan defines someone as being “out of the labour force” if they are in full-time studies; as a result, students taking summer courses are excluded from the calculation.  But in fact, as our own 2012 survey of summer employment showed, over 70% of summer students are also either working or looking for a job; among this group, unemployment typically runs at between 20 and 30% (last year, the figure was 29%; this year, it is 23%).  Indeed, one reason many students take summer courses in the first place is precisely because their jobs search was unsuccessful!  

Although our full annual employment report won’t be out for a bit, I want to provide you with some statistics on one other labour issue currently generating a lot of attention: unpaid internships.  Our preliminary examination of the data suggests that 5.4% of students are in some kind of internship or practicum this summer.  Of these, roughly half are educationally-related (e.g. mandated practicums in teaching or social work), meaning that about 2.7% of all students (or about 27,000 across the country) are in unpaid internships this summer.  That’s a long way below the 100-300K estimates one sees in the press these days, but it’s not inconsistent with those numbers since a) those larger figures represent internship positions across an entire year rather than positions at any one time, and b) our survey looks only at current university students and does not include either college students or recent graduates. 

Lastly, a key point about these unpaid internships: they’re mostly part-time affairs.  The median unpaid internship is just a 14 hours per week commitment; as a result, fully half of the students with unpaid internships are able to gain an income by working either full- or part-time. 

Have a good weekend, and be wary of overly rosy LFS statistics.

October 31

Reforming J-Schools

I see that a number of foundations – including the Knight, McCormick and Scripps-Howard Foundation– have written an open letter  to American university presidents, urging that they make Journalism schools “more like medical schools” and teaching them through immersion in “clinical, hands-on, real-life experience”. From a historical perspective, this is a deeply weird development.

Foundations have played a significant role in changing the course of professional education on a couple of occasions. In 1910, the American Medical Association and the Carnegie Foundation teamed up to pay Abraham Flexner to report on the state of medical education in North America. His finding – that medical schools were too vocational an insufficiently grounded in scientific disciplines such as biology – was a key development in the history of medicine. It was only after Flexner that university-based medical schools decisively ousted the proprietary medical schools as the primary locus of training future doctors, and turned the medical profession into one which mixed practice with research.

Forty-five years later, widespread dissatisfaction with American business schools led the Carnegie and Ford Foundations to instigate reports and programs designed to transform business schools into more research-oriented units with intimate links to various branches of the social sciences such as sociology, anthropology and economics. These had substantial short-and medium-term impacts, if more ambiguous long-term ones.

(On this, btw, I recommend The Roots, Rhetoric and Reality of Change: North American Business Schools since WWII by March and Augier. It ends flabbily, but the first 200 pages are excellent intellectual history).

In both cases professional education was to be improved by making it more “disciplinary” and more concerned with “fundamental knowledge”. It’s therefore more than passing strange that Foundations are now telling universities to make their J-schools less concerned with fundamental knowledge and more concerned with day-to-day experience.

Partly, it’s a different in the nature of the Foundations involved (Carnegie and Ford were considerably more removed from the worlds of medicine and business than the Scripps Howard Foundation is from journalism). Part of it, too, might be the nature of journalism itself; its practitioners may simply not need fundamental knowledge in order to be effective in the way doctors need biology and business-folks need econ/finance. (By extension, maybe journalism shouldn’t be taught in a university setting at all.)

What is unmistakable though – and more than slightly worrying – is the flat-out threatening tone taken by the Foundations in their letter, telling Presidents that institutions which don’t get with the program “will find it difficult to raise funds from Foundations concerned with the future of news”. Apart from being classless, a touch more humility about proclaiming any given educational model as the One True Way is surely in order.

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.