Making work-integrated learning actually work

Work-integrated learning (WIL) in the higher education space may be considered a 'silver bullet' when it comes to effectively combating societal inequality by enhancing graduate employability, but when it comes to its implementation, the concept continues to be the subject of some wrangling among stakeholders.

Addressing the recent third annual WIL Africa Conference in Umhlanga, South Africa, during a high-level panel discussion, Fazal Safla, general manager of the Provincial Public Service Academy based in the premier’s office, tackled head-on concerns expressed by conference organisers that WIL was quietly being dropped from, or at the very least reduced, at many of the country’s universities of technology – those institutions essentially mandated to focus on practical skills and produce work-ready graduates.

“We shouldn’t even be discussing this possibility,” Safla said, before adding: “We recently conducted a policy trend analysis and in terms of the National Development Plan, the White Paper for post-school education and training, the National Skills Development Plan [and others], the silver bullet in all of those documents to deal with inequality is WIL: linking industry to education and strong partnerships. It is in policy, it is clearly articulated and what we should be talking about is how we can be more effective in integrating it.”

Safla said the premier’s office – which held the role of facilitator, integrator and enabler – could play a part in facilitating “better integration between supply and demand sides within the province”, and he undertook to raise the issue in the KZN Economic Council.

While his offer was welcomed by the meeting, it was clear that the factors preventing the seamless integration of work experience in the higher education space are many, varied and, inevitably in South Africa, rather complex.


Many of these issues boil down to capacity – both financial and human. Safla himself conceded that government departments taking on WIL students found it brought “added responsibilities” for the employer which were difficult in the face of austerity measures and budget cuts recently announced by Treasury. He said it was therefore important that the sector training authorities, commonly known as SETAs, provide more financial support for the programme, as well as the institutions themselves.

CEO of the Council on Higher Education (CHE) Narend Baijnath made the point that compared to Canada’s Waterloo University, which according to an earlier presentation by its vice-chancellor, was able to ensure a nearly 100% employment rate for its graduates through its cooperative learning programmes, South African universities had limited resources which restricted their ability, along with other factors such as capacity and lack of sufficient working compacts with industry, to achieve enabling conditions for success.

In this context, the dreams of young graduates in possession of what they believed to be door-opening certificates were being “shattered” and public resources were effectively being wasted, he said.

Stressing the point that the employability of graduates was one of the “central priorities” in the post-school education and training sector, and WIL’s role was a “tried and tested strategy” to enhance that employability, Baijnath urged the meeting to consider how best to achieve the goals of WIL within the limited capabilities, capacities and resources at the country’s disposal.

Among his recommendations were the promotion of the standardisation of work-based learning nomenclature (an issue which has implications for the way in which WIL is funded or subsidised by government); greater expertise in the designing of WIL programmes; and greater flexibility around how WIL is achieved in the context of reduced opportunities for the placement of students in workplaces owing to economic challenges facing industry.

He also called for research to investigate specific aspects of WIL such as management and coordination, and assessment of generic skills in the WIL environment so as to be able to plan and act on evidence-based platforms.

But is WIL really being eroded in universities of technology and if so, why?

Professor Anshu Padayachee, CEO of the South African Technology Network (SATN), a consortium of technology-focused universities, said a study commissioned by the network showed that many institutions had not reduced or scrapped WIL, but only reduced the duration of the WIL component, a situation she described as “pretty dangerous”.

Transitional challenges

Trying to get to the bottom of the issue post-conference, I contacted the Durban University of Technology (DUT) Vice-Chancellor Professor Thandwa Mthembu who had also participated in the panel.

He denied that DUT had abandoned WIL, but said it was facing some teething problems in the transition from traditional forms of WIL (a stand-alone third year of work-based learning or several months at the workplace) with the new, more integrated, approach.

“The higher education sector now has CHE [good practice] guidelines on WIL, which universities are now using to develop their curricula. These guidelines are not one-size-fits-all, with several options universities could adopt. This caused great consternation by WIL enthusiasts whose conception of WIL is more traditional,” he said.

“DUT has not abandoned WIL. Instead, the new guidelines have provided other innovative ways or approaches to do WIL differently from how it had been done up to then. There are protagonists and antagonists alike to these WIL developments.”

On the issue of funding, he said: “The funding policy including what forms of WIL are funded or not (the traditional approach to it where students spend time in industry [is] not being funded whilst integrated WIL is) has been the driver of some departments or faculties making decisions on which approach to adopt. With lots of universities having become more managerialist – using resource allocation models to compare faculty income relative to its expenditure – there is more pressure on them to live within their income, in spite of some levels of cross-subsidisation.”

Mthembu shared a quote from one of his heads of departments in arts and design, whose programme still followed the traditional WIL approach, who said: “…I also understand the reticence from departments who have not curriculated WIL as a formal component of new qualifications. The combined facts that it cannot be subsidy-bearing (unless carefully structured), as well as the matter of departments being responsible for placement of students (without any real guidelines as to what this responsibility entails) have scared off departments from including WIL in their programmes.

"Add to this the fact that we no longer seem to get YE [WIL] budgets – which allows for lecturing staff to be relieved while they monitor WIL in industry – and the fact that we are no longer able to draw against the fees our students pay to the co-op unit for travel to these sites, and the situation is exacerbated.”

Delays in student graduation

Mthembu conceded that there were sometimes “inordinate” delays in the graduation of some students because of the lack of WIL placements – a result which, he said, had a significant impact on both the institution and the individual students.

“The requirement that universities have to take responsibility for placing students when placements fully depend on the availability of opportunities in industry, in a lacklustre economy where job opportunities are not being created, is a big challenge to universities,” he said.

Compounding the effects of the economic downturn was a lack of goodwill from South African business owners towards government and programmes such as WIL, according to Wiseman Madinane, DUT council chair and managing director at Bulk Connections, a subsidiary of the Bidvest Group.

“I think we have a fundamental problem of corporate South African not buying into the ‘New South Africa’. The last 10 years of political leadership have not helped. We are coming from possibly the lowest point in terms of business-government relationships.”

“Business votes with their money. It is an effort to take students into your organisation because they need to be guided, mentored and provided with resources, desks and computers. It’s not a lot of cost, but it’s an effort. Corporate South Africa in my view has made an unannounced position: stuff you.”

More effort required

He said the education sector should rekindle with industry strong relationships that do not depend on which government is in power at any time. “The goodwill that flows from a decent government-business relationship will come and go. Universities of technology and others must put effort into this across the country.

“My challenge to university managers is that they … must be toe to toe with CEOs of businesses, sitting in board rooms of corporates, engaging and understanding what they require. Once they have identified what their pain points are, you can make them go away. Engagement is very important and for university managers to understand, they need to reach out and understand what their space is in the market.”

But if there was any reluctance from industry to the idea of WIL, it was not on display during the panel discussion; in fact quite the opposite: “Should we stop WIL? It’s like having potholes in the road and merely changing the tyres,” said Chris Gengan, learning development manager at Sappi.

’Essential for business’

“I’d like to warn the people who put this conference together that part of funding [for WIL] comes from mandated grants in the private sector.” Defending the industrial sector’s commitment to WIL, he said it was motivated not by the need to comply with the Skills Development Act or even black economic empowerment regulations. “It’s essential for our business,” he said bluntly.

He was backed by Nivesh Lutchman, education manager at SIEMENS, who said in similarly direct terms that institutions that drop WIL would not be strategic partners and their students would have “no value” to the company.

Lutchman said the implementation of WIL and the production of graduates and workers with relevant skills required “working together”.

“We would not want WIL to be dropped,” he said. “It is definitely something that will take our country forward.”