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The Value of Work-Integrated Learning (WIL)

Denise Jackson, School of Business, Edith Cowan University

The value of Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) is recognised across the world and WA is no exception. Our local universities are busy seeking and coordinating work placements for students in the traditional disciplines of Nursing, Clinical Practices, Education and Engineering, as well as ‘newer’ areas such as Business, Law and Information Technology.

The benefits are significant for all stakeholders. Students gain a better understanding of the realities of the world-of-work and can make more informed career choices through exposure to their intended profession. Universities can use experiential learning to better prepare their students for the transition to employment, as well as harnessing the benefits of a key marketing tool – particularly for international students, in an increasingly competitive market. Employers get to trial capable students who are keen to gain experience and work on relevant projects. Often they produce tangible outcomes for their hosts during their placement and this practice of ‘try before you buy’ can avoid increasingly lengthy and complex recruitment processes for identifying suitable graduates in the current ‘war on talent’. The advantages of WIL are now widely acknowledged and prompted the recently released National Strategy on WIL in University Education.

Work placements are only one part of WIL which encompasses other valuable learning initiatives such as client-based projects, simulations and role-plays which can take place on campus and capture the benefits of student-industry engagement. However, many issues impact the implementation of WIL in higher education. These include difficulties in effectively engaging with employers when organising WIL opportunities and achieving high student productivity during the WIL experience.

Edith Cowan, Curtin, UWA and Murdoch universities, as part of the Australian Collaborative Education Network (ACEN) are working on a research project in association with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry Western Australia (CCIWA) to explore ways to overcome these challenges. The project is designed to develop and trial effective approaches that will increase employers understanding of, and engagement in WIL opportunities in WA Business Schools. In partnership, the project team is exploring approaches to improve employer engagement in WIL; effective support requirements to improve WIL outcomes for all stakeholders and ways of enhancing productive and mutually beneficial partnerships between industry and universities. A survey of CCIWA members has gathered feedback on their experiences in WIL and follow-up focus groups further explored employer needs and innovative approaches to delivering WIL in different businesses. These determined key issues in improving employer engagement in WIL; partnership models that facilitate employer participation; and informed the design of a WIL advisory service which is currently being trialled by CCIWA.

Further problems arise in managing WIL for international students who are often perceived as having weaker communication skills, poor cultural fit with the Australian workplace and unsuited to the ‘try before you buy’ strategy due to concerns with working visa regulations once their studies are completed. As part of an ACEN funded grant, myself and Professor Ken Greenwood are exploring current WIL offerings among WA universities and identifying best practice in the WIL processes for international students. Through canvassing employer, academic and student perspectives, we hope to identify the challenges and barriers experienced in managing WIL among international students with a specific focus on Business and Engineering and recommend strategies for enhancing their WIL outcomes.

May 2015