Work-integrated learning to help with graduate unemployment

South African tertiary institutions are preparing to roll out a bold new initiative aimed at bridging the gap between universities’ lecture halls and the world of work.

The initiative will ensure that students gain experience in the workplace to obtain the skills required for employment in a manner that is seamless and in line with the curriculum, says Professor Thandwa Mthembu, the vice-chancellor of the Durban University of Technology.

As part of the initiative, Work Integrated Learning South Africa (WILSA), students at the country’s 26 public institutions will spend six months in the corporate or public sector putting classroom theories into practice.

This article is published in partnership with the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA) to focus on the Higher Education Reform Experts South Africa (HERESA), a European-Union-funded project including THENSA members. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

In the past, Mthembu says, there has been a disjuncture in terms of what is happening at university and what is happening in the world of work.

But he insists that universities must continue to be seen as learning spaces so that the theoretical aspects in the classroom merge with the practical situations in the workplace, with the aim of producing fit-for-purpose graduates.

Mthembu concedes, however, that it is a giant task, particularly in an environment where there are not enough jobs and a struggling economy.

Shortage of placements

Therefore, the tertiary sector has launched WILSA as a collective under the banner of the South African vice-chancellors’ body, Universities South Africa (USAf), to bridge the gap.

Although the groundwork for WILSA began in 2017, Mthembu says there are groups of people who have been using different names for endeavours relating to work-integrated learning.

“This is simply a refined version of what has been there before, called experiential learning, cooperative education, and so on … we have had debates about where we should be going as a country in respect of what we call work-integrated learning,” he adds.

Thus, WILSA emerged organically from previous efforts and was harnessed into a collective force to tackle work for the future in a cohesive manner. This allows practical engagements, which have previously been a formal part of the student experience at technikons (now called universities of technology), to be adopted by all tertiary institutions.

A major challenge, says Mthembu, who also serves as the chairperson of the World of Work Strategy Group at USAf, is that there are not enough companies willing to place students in work environments that the curriculum requires, because of the current strained economy.

“Are we going to wait until the economy improves and it allows for more placements? No, we need to find other ways because the idea is for graduates in specific areas to receive fit-for-purpose training … you wouldn’t want a doctor who has never ever been in a practical situation to operate on you,” he says.

Readjustment skills amid contextual changes

So, WILSA aims to ensure, for example, that engineers and those being readied for other professions, obtain placements before students are ready to go out in the field.

Consequently, he says, students who have completed their studies with placement, will be a step ahead when they join the workplace.

Mthembu launched WILSA at the 11th International Conference of the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa in Fourways, Johannesburg, in March, saying it is a strategy to address the new way of working through universities by adopting technology in its teaching and learning – and ensuring students are engaged in the corporate or public sector to get relevant experience.

“So, the idea is that we must make that experience not just an experience, but an integral part of the learning. That would have started in the classroom theoretically, and then it extends into that external environment,” Mthembu adds.

While WILSA is aimed at addressing what Mthembu labels failings of South Africa’s 2001 National Plan for Higher Education to produce graduates for social and economic development in the country, he points out that WILSA alone is not going to help produce graduates, for the economy, and for social development.

“It’s only a small part, simply because we need to understand, as universities, that the world of work has shifted. So, the approach around work-integrated learning is to try and consolidate the old approach we have always had that we are educating and training for the workplace.”

He emphasises that WILSA, and the idea around work-integrated learning, is to ensure that the little that is being done in terms of giving young people exposure to the world of work is done in a consolidated and cohesive manner with appropriate lessons for students.

“My argument is that the world of work has changed so drastically that we may need to even innovate in terms of a new philosophy around education and training so that we are providing a philosophy that will not provide our economy and our society with graduates who have tunnel vision.

“Because there are so many shifts that are happening in the world of work, a graduate who may have been well-trained, been exposed to work-integrated learning, graduates and finds that the socio-economic arena has changed slightly, the ground has shifted,” he says.

WILSA aims to empower young people to be able to readjust themselves within an environment that might look foreign.

“I’m saying that work-integrated learning is a small part of a bigger process of quality curriculum renewal within the higher education sector so that we can produce different graduates to what we have been doing,” he adds.