Is Co-operative Education the Future of University?



By Sarah Lachance

How Did We Get Here?

With the massification of post-secondary education (PSE) in Canada, more and more students every year are seeing university as the right path for them (Jones, 2007). This has put universities in the position of playing a key role in the state of our national economy (Stewart, 2010). In fact, provincial and federal governments have gone as far as to make increased access to PSE as a goal to support the assumed high need for more skilled employees in the workforce (Jones, 2007).

It is no surprise that this shift towards increased enrollment has decreased the employment value of a degree (Walters & Zarifa, 2008). David McKay reported in the Globe and Mail (2015) that cooperative education not only prepares students for this changing economy, but also allows them to bring those experiences to the classroom to expand their learning.

Who Benefits? What are the Opportunities?

In a National Graduate Survey by Statistics Canada it was found that students who completed a co-operative education program in university or college were more likely to have full time employment two years after graduation than their non-coop counterparts (Walters & Zarifa, 2008). They were also more likely to get positions in their desired professions, make more money, and be overall more confident and job ready (Milley & Kovinthan, 2014).

Employers are complaining that university graduates are lacking the skills that they are looking for in employees (Miller, 2014). The purpose of cooperative education is to increase the employability of students; it also allows employers to give feedback to the schools about student performance and curriculum development (Milley & Kovinthan, 2014)

In 2005, there were 152,762 full-time international students enrolled in university (Stewart, 2010). Cooperative education allows foreign students to “get their foot in the door” of the Canadian workforce, make connections, and increase their likelihood of gaining employment after graduation (Tal & Enenajor, 2013).

Who Loses? What are the Challenges?

Turner (2014) believes that the current university education system trains graduates to develop knowledge, skill, and self-efficacy already, all of which are transferrable to the job market. The argument has been raised that prioritizing increased employability in university education undermines the core purpose of the institution and takes away from the development of this knowledge and skills set (Milley & Kovinthan, 2014).

For example, the University of Waterloo has one of the world’s largest cooperative education programs with approximately 19,000 students enrolled and 5,200 employers who participate (McKay, 2015). David McKay, a UWO Coop Alumni, did his placements at RBC where he is now the President and CEO. He believes that government incentives for universities to improve how they facilitate these programs are the key to increasing their effectiveness and the employability of graduates (McKay, 2015). Future changes in funding from government agencies to PSE may or may not incorporate these types of incentives. It could be a challenge for universities without coop programs already in place to receive the money they need to create them.

What Direction Should We Go Next?

One option is the addition of more applied baccalaureate programs in university. The Canadian Counsel on Learning (2010) believes that these types of programs, that have more of a vocational focus while still incorporating the program goals of typical undergraduate program, will be a welcomed innovation to employers.

These programs need to be developed so that they satisfy the purpose of the university and create more employable graduates. This style of program would require students to be participants in the work force to extend learning rather than for economic goals (Milley & Kovinthan, 2014). This way a student can get on-the-job experience while still developing thinking skills. An example of this would be using reflective practice as a means of improving metacognition (Milley & Kovinthan, 2014).

Why Should We Care?

Although the unemployment rate for PSE graduate is only five percent (Dehaas, 2014), it is believed that graduates stuck in part-time, low-income jobs is more than double that rate (Miller, 2014). What this means is that, with more people attending PSE, there are more students graduating with debt and with less graduates being hired into full-time, positions PSE graduates are starting their lives at a financial disadvantage (Tal & Enenajor, 2013).

In a recent HEQCO report, they recommended employer satisfaction with PSE graduates as an indicator of quality in post secondary institutions (HEQCO, 2012a, 2012b). If this criterion were to be added, various universities in Canada would begin to prioritize the employment skills of their graduates. Therefore, this may be an important time for researchers to be looking at this issue to develop a comprehensive coop program that satisfies the needs of employers and the purpose of universities.


Canadian Council on Learning (2010). Navigating post-secondary education in Canada: The challenge of a changing landscape. Ottawa, ON: Author

Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (2012a). Performance indicators for the public postsecondary system in Ontario. Toronto, ON: Author.

Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (2012b). The productivity of the Ontario public postsecondary system preliminary report. Toronto, ON: Author.

Jones, G. (2007, April). The academy as a work in progress. Academic Matters: The Journal of Higher Education, 10-13.

McKay, D. (2015, May 8). For students and employers, co-op education is a bridge to a wider world. The Glove and Mail. Retrieved from

Millar, E. (2014, Oct 14). The expectation gap: Students’ and Universities’ roles in preparing for life after grad. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from

Milley, P., & Kovinthan, T. (2014). Examining the research base on university co-operative education in light of the neoliberal challenge to liberal education. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 60(2), 377 – 402.

Stewart, P. (2010). Academic values v commercial values. CAUT Bulletin, 57(3). Retrieved from

Tal, B., & Enenajor, E. (2013). Degrees of success: The playoff to higher education in Canada. In Focus. Retrieved from

Turner, N. (2014). Development of self-belief for employability in higher education: Ability, efficacy and control in context. Teaching in Higher Education, 19(6), 592 – 602. doi: 10.1080/13562517.2014.901951

Walters, D., & Zarifa, D. (2008). Earnings and employment outcomes for male and female postsecondary graduates of coop and non-coop programs. Journal of Vocational Education and Training, 60(4), 337 – 299. doi: 10.1080/13636820802591863.


One thought on “Is Co-operative Education the Future of University?

  1. Hi Sarah – thanks for this! I wonder how Brock (for example) can grow coop – esp. given the economic challenges? What possibilities do you see for coop within education degrees? 🙂

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