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Let's make WIL a priority: the opportunity for Australian universities and companies - and the new Government

Career Ready Graduates

By Hania Syed and Peter Binks, BHERT

The last decade has seen a dramatic shift in the way universities approach their responsibilities to provide employment-ready graduates for Australia’s private and public sector.

Work Integrated Learning (WIL) programs – other than the obligatory placements, internships, and clerkships used for generations of doctors, engineers, and lawyers – have been used in other industries since the 1990’s and are now of greater importance than ever.

Career-readiness has become a prime focus for many Australian universities, with almost all conducting WIL programs in multiple faculties. These provide great benefit, enabling students to have demonstrable industry experience upon graduating from their course.

WIL is equally advantageous for employers, providing new skills (e.g. digital marketing) and fresh ideas to their workplaces, as well as the potential for informed recruitment.

For the first time, we now have an Australia-wide picture of the penetration of these programs.  Universities Australia (link) have released a landmark report which details the extent and diversity of WIL programs in Australian universities.

The good news: some 450,000 undergraduates participated in work placements, internships or field work as part of their study in 2017. Work placements (43 per cent) are the most common workplace experiences, followed by industry projects (23 per cent), fieldwork (10 per cent) and industry simulations (13 per cent). Health and education students typically take work placements, while IT, engineering, architecture, management, commerce and creative arts students participate in industry based projects. This federally funded Universities Australia project has shed considerable light on the diverse models of WIL in Australia today.

Now for some perspective: there are presently 1.5 million university students in Australia, including domestic and international students, and taking into account both full time and part time study. Only a fraction of Australian students – roughly one-third – are participating in WIL programs in their degrees.

It is not clear what the right number is for Australia.  Other nations are approaching this differently: Canada now has 66% of its students experiencing WIL, and BHERT’s sister organisation in Canada (BHER Canada) has proclaimed a target of 100%, calling for all Canadian university students to have access to WIL programs.

The Canadian government is responding. The Federal Budget for 2019, announced on March 19, contains multiple measures to prepare students for the workforce, including:

  • C$631 million over five years to expand the existing Student Work Placement Program to all students, regardless of discipline;
  • A new investment of C$150 million over four years to create partnerships with innovative businesses; and
  • C$17 million to support the Business/Higher Education Roundtable to convene partners such as businesses, post-secondary institutions, not-for-profits and other levels of government. This will also include funding for a platform to better connect students, schools and employers.

In Australia the process is not supported by the Federal government, so universities are doing it themselves to grow their WIL participation.  The University of Sydney has set expectations that 100% of its students will undertake WIL.

From a student perspective – and in the light of significant youth unemployment – placement programs are now the expected norm. Students are looking for support beyond job search and securing skills, desiring personal development and search programmes to fully prepare them for life after graduation. Students are keen to acquire foundational skills such as appropriate professional conduct, and how to work in a company or organisation.

This is an opportunity for better university and industry integration, to equip students for future employment in Australian companies.  This is not just a critical issue for our companies: if talent and workforce skills are a differentiator, then WIL contributes directly to Australia’s long-term competitive position.  It is time for a national strategy.

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