Over 90 per cent of Australians consider student work placements to be important in preparing young people for the workplace, according to Universities Australia. With more of the country understanding the value of work experience as part of education, universities nationwide are adopting work-integrated learning (WIL) programmes, attracting just shy of half a million students in 2017.
As an increasing number of universities adapt to the growing demand for student work experience, it begs the question: Are these programmes all they're cracked up to be?
In this article, we'll take a look at university work-integrated learning programmes, what value they provide and how they differ from vocational education and training (VET).
A glimpse at university work-integrated learning
Work-integrated learning at universities aims to support a student's learning with real-world applications, combining work and educational experiences.
There are a number of different methods through which WIL is delivered, each achieving unique benefits for students. WIL programmes can also vary largely in length, assessment criteria and significance in a given degree. Universities Australia describes four different categories of work-integrated learning. These are:
- Placements and internships: Students spend some time working in a business associated with their field and are assessed by their employer for academic credits.
- Industry projects: Students work with organisations in their industry to deliver a research project.
- Fieldwork: Students engage in off-campus learning, often under advisement of a university faculty member.
- Industry simulations: Students practice real-world tasks in a simulated environment.
The most common type of work-integrated learning varies according to field of study. Placements are most popular in health and education courses, while industry projects are more common for IT, commerce and management programmes.
In terms of hospitality management degrees, WIL means university students are most likely engaging in practical problem-solving projects. These are largely academic assignments, providing value to the student's education but not directly developing work-ready skills.
The difference between university WIL and VET
Vocational education and training is centred around work-based learning (WBL), which has similar intentions to WIL with a number of key differences.
Whereas WIL encourages students to apply their academic knowledge in a limited placement or project, WBL works in the other direction - placing greater emphasis on the development of skills in a workplace and facilitating intentional development of professional competencies. WBL focuses on providing authentic workplace participation and experience supported by educational facilitators.
In VET, work-based learning is embedded in the entire programme. While WIL typically accounts for a single subject or semester in a university degree, WBL is an underlying and pervasive aspect of VET. For example, at Kenvale College, students spend two to three days a week in the workplace and two in the classroom. With more time in the workplace, WBL is an intrinsic part of the wider learning experience in VET, as opposed to WIL which is generally viewed as a distinct component of a degree.
Key benefits VET has over WIL
While WIL programmes aim to improve the work-readiness of students, the structure of VET provides a much stronger advantage. In a VET programme, a students works the length of their qualification, often more than a year, gaining skills and experience. They start from the ground, while their concurrent studies help to advance more quickly in the workforce.
In university programmes, students may be placed in higher level roles or be involved in less practical assignments, which don't hold as much value in the eyes of an employer. After all, employers want to see longer periods of experience and know that a candidate has picked up relevant skills on the floor. This is particularly the case in service sectors where front-line experience is directly relevant to management competencies.
Simply put, after three or more years of university study, a student may have engaged in six months (26 weeks) of work experience, at only a few hours each week. Meanwhile, a VET student completing an advanced diploma would graduate having worked roughly 20 hours a week for 92 weeks. With employers emphasising the importance of work experience, the VET student has a clear advantage.
Supporting this, Universities Australian reports 72.9 per cent of university undergraduates were in full-time employment four months after completing their degree, compared to the 100 per cent graduate employment rate enjoyed by Kenvale College VET students.
VET students also have the advantage with regards to career progression. This is because they enter the workforce from the moment their tertiary study begins. So, from as young as 18 years old, high school leavers can participate in their chosen industry and - by the time they're 21 - they will have graduated and climbed the ladder to a supervisory position. This is particularly the case for those studying for service industries like hospitality and events.
Meanwhile, highschool leavers going to university would only be graduating at age 21 and lack the workplace experience needed to enter the same high-level position. They would therefore need to start from floor service roles despite years of study, slowing their career progression.
Earning while you study
Another important distinguishing factor for many students is that work-based learning under VET is paid experience. As VET students are genuine employees - not interns - they're paid for their time and can achieve raises and promotions based on performance.
While WIL placements may be paid, they will often be limited to a single wage and position. They also generally last only six months before the student returns to full-time study. So, in order to support oneself while studying, students will need to pick up part-time jobs and/or acquire a Youth Allowance or student loan.
At the end of the day, VET equips students for the workforce through full immersion and engagement in their industry, giving the competitive edge over university students, regardless of WIL initiatives.
For more information about VET programmes for the hospitality, events and commercial cookery sectors, and what could lie ahead in your career, reach out to a Kenvale College course advisor today.