Work-integrated learning – Challenging the ivory tower

Work-integrated learning (WIL) has become a “social, economic and educational imperative”, which deserves greater support than it currently receives from all stakeholders, including higher education institutions, government and industry, says Carva Pop, president of the Southern African Society for Cooperative Education (SASCE).

Speaking at the sidelines of SASCE’s third WIL Africa Conference held at Umhlanga, South Africa, from 18-20 July, Pop told University World News that even top-ranked traditional universities such as Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town are introducing WIL into their programmes – an acknowledgement of the capacity of WIL to enhance the relevance of academic programmes and improve graduate employability.

“WIL has the potential to strip away hierarchy and challenge the ivory tower. In the workplace, students are assessed on a common platform which renders irrelevant the inequalities that continue to characterise our higher education system and our society,” he said. Pop added that WIL has been a burning platform for some time, but its value can no longer be denied.

According to Pop, the protests by students over university fees and institutions' decolonisation which started in 2016 revealed what students are capable of. “We are lucky that students are not demanding WIL in their studies. Other countries have done it successfully. Why can’t we?”

Work-integrated learning is an umbrella term that describes curricular, pedagogic and assessment practices, across a range of academic disciplines that integrate formal learning and workplace concerns.

According to the Council on Higher Education’s Good Practice Guide for WIL, what distinguishes WIL from more narrow conceptions of learning-for-work is the emphasis on the integrative aspects of such learning. WIL includes a whole range of educationally-driven strategies such as apprenticeships, cooperative education, service-learning, work-based learning, work experience and workplace learning.

Social transformation

In his opening address to the conference, which drew over 350 delegates and coincided with Nelson Mandela International Day, Pop described cooperative education as being able to “bridge the gap between higher education and industry for social transformation” in the context of ongoing inequalities in society and the higher education sector.

He said the notion of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges “being less than” universities of technology, and universities of technology “being less than” comprehensive universities, and comprehensive universities “being less than” traditional universities was a “false notion” because a developed society needed specific outputs from all these institutions.

Referring to Mandela’s famous analogy of education as a weapon of change, Pop said: “In the WIL space, we need to embrace the philosophy and notion of WIL as a weapon, a weapon to equip us in terms of our assault on the current status quo – inequality and an education system graduating students not fit to engage in meaningful economic activity, either as employers or employees.”

Speaking to University World News about challenges facing the implementation of WIL, Pop agreed that there was a need for greater clarity over the nomenclature in the field of work-based education and said such clarity would help streamline government funding allocated to various workplace-based training initiatives.

WIL under threat

His comments came against the background of concerns publicly expressed by the organisers in the build-up to the conference that South African universities of technology were, despite the efficacy of WIL, opting to reduce or even exclude WIL in their qualifications, owing to a number of issues ranging from difficulty in finding enough workplaces for students, as well as complications around government allocation of funding for various workplace-based learning permutations.

Pop accused universities in some cases of “operating as if they are above the law” by reducing WIL-based initiatives.

“It’s not just about resources,” said Pop. “WIL modules are paid for either by students themselves or through the NSFAS grants. Essentially, the money should be ring-fenced for cooperative education by institutions, but government also needs to come to the party in terms of their approach to the funding of students while they are working and learning off-campus.”

“We tend to blame industry for not making enough placements available or exploiting our students, but government is treating our students as cheap labour too,” he said.

According to Pop, the prevailing situation had the potential to “deepen the divide” between South African students. “The haves continue to have and the have-nots suffer from reduced quality of education.”

Pop said generally speaking, cooperative education was receiving less and less in terms of resources, but those committed to it were trying to do more and more. “Our capacity in this area needs to grow and needs more dedicated resources.”

Centres of excellence

South Africa can boast of having centres of excellence and practice in respect of WIL. “We need to showcase our excellence more widely and in our research agendas, but we are not laggards in the global field by any means,” he said.

At the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, where Pop is co-operative education manager of the Centre for Community Engagement and Work Integrated Learning, Professor Joyce Nduna had been awarded a WIL chair by the Education Training and Development Practices Sector Education and Training Authority (ETDP SETA). Although funding from the authority was subsequently revoked, the chair continues to exist at the university and there are postgraduate students working under it conducting national research.

Pop said he hoped the conference would encourage stakeholders to “take ownership and start doing things”.

“I don’t want this conference to amount to a talk shop; I want it to mobilise units and institutions, and when enough is taking place nationally, we will be in a position in which no one can ignore the importance of what we are saying. I don’t mind if we make mistakes; this should be a platform to share what doesn’t work and discover what does work.”