After years of fragmented and low-level approaches it is now action stations in higher education as the sector comes to grips with the challenges and opportunities inherent in Work Integrated Learning. Most, if not all, universities have WIL programs, ranging from case studies to fully-paid placements – and many are actively striving to increase and improve their offerings.

Now in place is a National Strategy on WIL – defined as an “umbrella term for a range of approaches and strategies that integrate theory with the practice of work within a purposefully designed curriculum”. It is driven by organisations including Universities Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Business Council of Australia. One intended (and sensible) outcome of the strategy is to ensure WIL does not develop piecemeal but is part of a coherent approach to building workforce capability and skills.

Business and industry have been emphasising the need a work-ready and work-capable graduates for decades in the face of considerable push-back from parts of the sector, arguing that it is not the job of universities to impart narrow vocational skills. In recent years, however, considerable national and international academic research into WIL has helped to legitimise it in the eyes of many in the academy.

Other strong influencers have driven the uptake of WIL:

The Graduate market is tougher. One of the results of a system where more graduates are produced than the jobs available is that students need to be more “valuable” with attributes and skills attractive to potential employers. Gone are the days of two years in rotation with hours in the photocopy room. This change is generally accepted and understood so I won’t dwell on it.

No longer a nice to have. Students, who see the material and competitive advantages of work experience and skills development, are now clearly hearing the message of what employers want from graduates. In fact, it is hard to argue that a reasonable work placement would not help a student get a job, build networks, and improve understanding of whether a role is right for you and the like. In the US most internships, generally unpaid, are in high demand – and the majority of students are fully aware of their value. Universities have strong processes to ensure that students gain practical, relevant experience rather than indentured servitude.

Improved academic performance. There is some evidence to suggest a possible link between work placements and academic achievement, with researchers finding that placements improve degree performance. The research “suggested that more able students are more likely to undertake placements in the first place, and that degree performance is not improved by a placement per se, but by a successful placement”. See here for more information.

International appeal. For international students WIL is a major competitive advantage and is quickly becoming a “hygiene” factor – ie, “if you can’t deliver a good placement you mustn’t be a very good university”. Implied in this belief are value judgements about how good your networks with industry are and how happy your graduates are.

Agents are only now beginning to understand the potential demand that can be generated by post-study work rights. These rights are competitive levers used by countries around the world. The US is progressing with significant immigration initiatives for STEM PhDs, Canada has had successful programs, and of course Australia has post-study work rights for undergraduates and postgraduates. However, until recently agents have not strongly promoted the significant potential benefits of post-study work rights in Australia because the reality was a low level of graduate employment – social media has been awash with how bad the job market is for international graduates.

Specific skills shortages. Another advantage of a good WIL program is communications skills development, important because a fundamental barrier to international students – and many domestic students – is poor communications ability. A good WIL program enables students not only to demonstrate they can communicate, but also develops these skills and seeks confirmation of attainment from employers. While we have consistently argued that undergraduate and postgraduate degrees should have a Leadership component that includes Advanced Communication, Negotiation, Community Building and Collaboration, some aspects of these can be achieved in a WIL program.

The vocational nexus. For many years universities have promoted the notion that they are primarily about teaching academic and research competencies rather than vocational skills. However, times have changed – and this presents both a reality and an opportunity.

The reality is that many university courses have always been highly skills-based and many have progressed to produce industry defined work capabilities (such as the Masters of Accounting CPA Extension and of course Medicine, Law, Dentistry, Nursing and the like).   However, despite this effort graduate employment rates at many universities have been falling. Industry calls for work-ready graduates are now being heard and acted on in an effort to deliver on the per se promise of higher education – that a degree will get students a job. While many programs have long included WIL elements, predictions of employment growth are in areas with less WIL embedded in education programs.

Competition will drive change. The other reality is that the demand for WIL opens the door for new competitors and different competitive models. Imagine a Google Coding Program with a one-year internship at Google – this may or may not be partnered with a university of other education provider, but the provider may be secondary to the industry/employer brand or an individual industry leader. These programs have already started reaching past graduate business schools’ ‘Star Academic’ model to much more collaborative offerings. For example, Deakin University has a great relationship with IBM and commonly offers internships at IBM in its Analytics programme. In the US, these brands include NASA, Marvel and even the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame!)

For universities without strong partnership building, collaborative capabilities and desires this will be an increasing threat. Often a threat is also an opportunity – and this is the case here. Universities able to secure closer educational partnerships with key strategic industry partners can both boost their current positions or enable smaller players to effectively compete with institutions that are currently seen as more prestigious.

Another opportunity stream comes from new social and economic drivers that now serve to support the argument that students need more than limited skills to succeed in their futures. Students graduating today are likely to work for more than 50 years, changing careers as many as 15 times. A university able to prepare students for this dynamic and uncertain future will be delivering value that will be embraced by future students.

The options available to universities are almost endless. However, it is vital that choices made by each university achieve the following:

  1. Deliver demonstrable value to current and targeted students – both directly with actual exposure to industry and indirectly through identified competitive advantages such as communications skills and team-work
  2. Industry needs are clearly understood and met overtly rather than passively. In return industry partners must agree to be a visible part of the learning community
  3. That partnerships and experiences are consistent with and enhance the brand image of the university and leverage the great brands of its partners
  4. That all three above are able to both deliver and be easily communicated as a competitive advantage for the university, student and industry partner
  5. WIL programs should be sustainable in terms of financial efficiency and duration. There is no point having a success that is gone by the time it achieves awareness – and awareness cycles are 2-3 years minimum.

We have seen many options that achieve the above. And great courses can often have multiple WIL offerings. Examples at opposite ends of a spectrum include:

Charles Sturt University’s new engineering program hits all five of the factors above. Students leave the degree with 4+ years of experience, two degrees and full Institute of Engineers certification.

Further, graduates start work with proven capabilities defined with industry and an employment opportunity network. Academically the learn-and-apply context model enhances the learning experience and we expect to see improved academics results. We have no doubt students completing this course will have a competitive advantage over most other engineering programs in Australia.

Industry engagement and communications have been excellent. I am sure there have been plenty of “ducks swimming smoothly above the water” periods but we understand they have achieved great industry support with partners lining up, including important local industry. Communications are simple but strong and the model, though high investment, is also capable of being highly efficient with costs shared.

At the other end of the spectrum are technology-enabled offerings such as the Practera programs in which student engagement is achieved using smart technology and a clever business model. Corporate partners are able to contribute current work projects supervised (mentored) by their team members in a high-engagement online collaborative model – similar to how many innovative new technology companies collaborate with their own staff. Individual participation and performance is tracked for each individual student, mentor and project.

One great advantage is the scalability. Individual mentors can handle much larger project groups without physical and operational limitations. Remember when an intern just “followed people around” – that worked OK but imagine 20 people doing that! As a result the programs appear to address a critical challenge of most WIL efforts – to get enough good quality places. In this case the same number of partners generates 10 times the places. Additionally, the efficiency benefits are obvious – if utilised effectively costs of these programs are generally much lower than traditional units.

What we also like about these programs is that they engage students in work projects in the manner that new companies would like to see their teams work – collaboratively, multi-site, multi-capability, digitally savvy, accountable and measurable: just turning up won’t work.

There are many other examples of good and inferior programs we have seen: and a good choice for one university or college may not be the best for another.

However, the race is on now and being competitive requires constant adjustment and fine-tuning – and remember that student perceptions also change over time.

We would be very interested in WIL examples you have seen – good or bad. Please add your views to this important conversation.

* For assistance in devising innovate courses, programs and other initiatives, HECG’s expert professionals are here to help. Contact us online here or call +61 403 302 710