By Michael Ou
When I recall my undergraduate education, I immediately draw on rich experiences, theories, literature, and course content that still resonate with me today. But despite these fond memories, the arts degree which I obtained was far less beneficial in offering practical and professional experience in the form of field placements and internships. In contrast, undergraduate programs in the faculty of business and law offer internship and co-op opportunities to their students as integral components of attaining a degree (Wagner, 2000). Work-integrated learning (WIL) in the form of internships, co-op, and field placements can help students gain practical work experience, enhance their resumes, improve their employable skills, and also help in determining whether a potential career is a good fit (Sattler & Peters, 2013). In Ontario colleges, WIL is described as mandatory by 82% of WIL students, meanwhile in universities, half of WIL students voluntarily chose to participate in such programs (Sattler & Peters, 2013). Does this mean that practical experiences are more important at the college level than they are for university students? Or does this instead address a need for the integration of more WIL opportunities into Ontario universities? Theoretical training is a key component of a university education, but students attending Ontario universities are demanding more practical training because they want and expect their degrees to lead to employment (Dehaas, 2013). The issue of whether Ontario universities need to offer more opportunities for students to gain practical and field experience continues to generate debate and is worth exploring in further detail.
Students attending Ontario universities want more practical training (Dehaas, 2013) therefore engaging in WIL will generate opportunities to acquire professional and practical experiences while also enabling a link between educational theories and practice (Westerberg & Wickersham, 2011). Participation in WIL can also enable students and faculty the opportunity to collaborate while simultaneously building and strengthening relationships between the school and local community (Westerberg & Wickersham, 2011). Internships can also develop new skills, enhance or deepen areas of interest, and also aid in the exploration of possible career paths (Wagner, 2000). The opportunity to explore and practice in a chosen field of study will provide students with experiences which they can use towards shaping their future academic and professional goals.
A primary concern with internships is that there is no guarantee of employment upon completion (Goar, 2013). In addition, the intern experience may also vary with some acquiring relevant job skills meanwhile others may end up running errands and engaging in tasks that are unrelated to their intended goals (Goar, 2013). Interns can also potentially be overworked (Westerberg & Wickersham, 2011) and/or expected to produce the same work as other paid staff members (McGuire, 2013). For students in Ontario, two main barriers for taking on an internship include the delay of degree completion (McGuire, 2013; Sattler & Peters, 2013) as well as an inability to afford taking on an unpaid internship (Sattler & Peters, 2013; Goar 2013).
Although internships and field placements may be unable to guarantee immediate employment, they provide students with an opportunity to actively build their own professional networks and contacts outside of the academic institution (Wagner, 2000; Williams, 2010). Building a professional network can in turn provide students with potential prospects for future employment. Another perspective to consider is that academic and professional goals may also change with time and experience. WIL can help students understand that their developing skills may also complement alternate professional and academic opportunities that they may not have initially and previously considered (Wagner, 2000).
So what can we do about this?
The content in this blog alone would be insufficient in determining the best way to implement more WIL opportunities into Ontario universities. Further research and a collaborative effort between students, universities, local businesses, stakeholders, and community leaders are essential in order to gain support for such an endeavour.
As the two defining barriers for engaging in WIL in Ontario universities are an unwillingness to prolong completion of a degree as well as a lack of funding (Sattler & Peters, 2013), there are opportunities to address these concerns. Ontario universities should provide more WIL opportunities for programs in the faculty of arts and social sciences where WIL programs are not as prevalent in comparison to business and law programs (Wagner, 2000). Universities can also provide further clarification on the requirements of WIL participation and also provide greater flexibility for academic scheduling to accommodate WIL programs (Sattler & Peters, 2013) and student schedules.
In terms of funding, scholarships or other forms of financial assistance should be considered as options for student support (Sattler & Peters, 2013). Partnerships with local businesses, government funding and collaboration with WIL programs are also worth exploring as avenues for student funding (Westerberg & Wickersham, 2011; Wagner, 2000). There is an opportunity here for Ontario universities to ensure that their students receive an education that is rich in experience, content and applicable towards their future academic and professional goals.
Dehaas, J. (2013, Sept 24). Law students push for more practical skills training. Macleans. Retrieved from http://www2.macleans.ca/2013/09/24/and-justice-for-all/
Goar, C. (2013, Mar 11). Desperate graduates work for free. The Star. Retrieved from http://www.thestar.com/opinion/commentary/2013/03/11/desperate_graduates_work_for_free_goar.html
McGuire, M. (2013, June 24). Internship from hell. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Internship-From-Hell/139951/
Sattler, P., & Peters, J. (2013). Work-integrated learning in Ontario’s postsecondary sector: The experience of Ontario graduates (Research Publications). Toronto, ON: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/HEQCO_WIL_graduating_students_stakeholder.pdf
Wagner, R. (2000, August 4). How internships can open doors for new careers. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/How-Internships-Can-Open Doors/46291/
Westerberg, C., & Wickersham, C. (2011, April 24). Internships have value, whether or not students are paid. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Internships-Have-Value/127231/
Williams, G. (2010, April 12). How to make a student internship successful. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/how-to-make-a-student-internship-successful/23104