Cooperative education – A win-win solution for society

Far more than a philanthropic exercise, work-integrated learning (WIL) offers a win-win situation for students, universities, industry and society. In addition to boosting the employment rate of students, it offers a path towards sustainable development, nurturing the “brilliant minds” needed to produce “revolutionary solutions” to global challenges.

These were among the points made by the president and vice-chancellor of Canada's Waterloo University, Feridun Hamdullahpur, during the keynote address at the third annual WIL Africa Conference held in Umhlanga, South Africa, from 18 to 20 July.

The University of Waterloo, a comprehensive university in Ontario, Canada, claims to be the world’s leading co-operative (co-op) education programme which allows students to integrate their theoretical training with applicable work experiences.

Hamdullahpur said over 60% of students come to Waterloo because they want to become entrepreneurs. The system creates innovative students who are “equipped with tremendous knowledge” and the latest research ideas; they have experience in a variety of work places and require little or no training.

“Our students graduate with no debt, they have ideas and initiatives before they even graduate; they have confidence … there’s not a thing they see themselves as not being able to do. You need these kind of people if you want to produce entrepreneurs.”

97.7% employment rate

During the 2016-17 academic year the university had over 21,000 undergraduate students enrolled in 120 co-op programmes, and 93.5% of employers described their Waterloo co-op students in that year as “good to outstanding”, said Hamdullahpur. The institution currently works with over 6,900 employers and its students have a 97.7% employment rate.

Co-operative education falls under the umbrella of WIL but is distinct as it alternates a school term with a work term in a structured manner, according to the Georgia Tech Center for Career Discovery and Development.

At Waterloo, students are expected to experience five work terms, which start in their first year of enrolment. Overall, they gain two years’ worth of work experience. Placements take place in different companies and even different countries, including the United States and beyond.

“They will have multiple opportunities. Their progression is exponential, rather than the traditional progression one sees in a four-year programme,” said Hamdullahpur.

Under- and unemployment – a global risk

He said unemployment and underemployment (the latter referring to the underutilisation and misalignment of skills) has been identified by world and industry leaders in an assessment of the global risk landscape as one of the world’s biggest current challenges.

“They are in desperate need of the skills to maintain and grow businesses.”

Reflecting on the predominance of the traditional university lecture as a model for information and knowledge transfer over the course of centuries, he said: “What can we do to understand how students learn? Is this the best way of teaching them or are there ways they learn, process and retain information in a better way?”

Hamdullahpur said only a limited portion of learning – or at least the kind that produces the resilience, confidence and other attributes required in an innovative graduate – takes place in the classroom. However, he said the most critical component of WIL was the level of integration it offered between the two worlds of work and university – and within the university itself.

“Those institutions that think an experiential education will be a good add-on to their existence will see they are wrong. There is no choice but to integrate thoroughly. There should be no walls between the university or college and the world outside.

“Within the institution, many disciplines will have to start integrating with each other. Integration takes place both inside and outside the university and this makes for a successful university experience. It’s about establishing the right environment to encourage innovation and build leaders.”

Communication skills

Hamdullahpur said while knowledge was a valuable commodity for graduates, communication skills could not be overlooked.

“We constantly ask employers who take our students on work terms for feedback … They are delighted with the knowledge and skills of students, but ask us to please keep working on their communication skills.”

At Waterloo, the emphasis on communication actually precipitated the decision to add two more communication courses at the expense of more traditional disciplines.

“We removed two first-year maths courses and replaced them with communications courses – it was considered by some as unthinkable but it is one of the best things we did,” he said.

While the benefits of WIL or co-operative education seem clear, setting up the systems to achieve it and selling it to industry partners does require some attention, he said.

“It requires a lot of hard work, building trust and confidence with employers. They need to understand the value proposition of WIL. Without that, we can talk about it all we want; it is not going to happen. That trust and confidence-building is critical. We need to establish clear lines of communication and get feedback for every single student.”

But the benefits far outweigh the effort, suggests Hamdullahpur: “To governments and policy-makers, I want to say that WIL or the co-op programme is far more than a way to boost employment rates. If you look at global issues we are facing and will face, it is clear we will need those brilliant minds to be able to think and come up with revolutionary solutions or take advantage of opportunities to create healthy environments and prosperity for all.”