Work-integrated Learning in the University of the Future

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Employability has long been a key part of universities’ mission to produce graduates who can transition smoothly into the workplace. Under the terms of the Teaching Excellence Framework, employability has come even more to the fore, with TEF metrics placing significant weight on graduate outcomes (both employment and earnings). Work-integrated Learning (WIL) is a new conceptual framework to help universities build on their current employability work to create forward-thinking, future-driven strategies for offering practice-orientated learning across the curriculum.

Through WIL, universities offer students a range of structured, employer-based activities throughout their university career, developing both generic and specialised skills through direct workplace engagement. Examples of WIL activities might include placements, internships, fieldwork, employer-determined live briefs, consultancy projects, project tendering, and active participation in industry-led networking events. In some WIL programmes such activities are integrated fully into the university by being credit-bearing (ie. directly contributing towards a degree).

WIL as a university-wide strategy

WIL builds on the achievements of current employability practices within universities, extending them into the workplace itself. WIL, therefore, addresses the key problem of current student employability practices, which is how to give students direct, hands-on experience that will allow them to apply classroom-based theoretical learning to the workplace. WIL is also intended as a deeply embedded university strategy that re-imagines the student learning experience as a workplace-oriented process across all levels of degree programmes, rather than being focused on graduate outcomes alone. WIL identifies employer expectations, and redirects classroom and curriculum processes and outcomes towards them, in conjunction with placements which enable them to acquire key skills to make students work-ready.

WIL builds key skills

WIL practices need to be carefully aligned with both employer requirements and the demands of any given subject-area curriculum. Despite the effort that often goes into enhancing employability there is still a gap between graduate capabilities and employer expectations. WIL addresses this gap by working closely with employers to build integrated placements, modules and practices within the curriculum. While specific technical skills are useful, employers are often more interested in candidates who demonstrate capacity in generic skillsets, such as resilience, being an innovative self-starter, being able to undertake creative thinking and problem-solving, and being proactive in their own career planning. A feedback loop between universities and employers can also be established in ongoing WIL development, so that employers can participate and shape the preparation of work-ready students, feeding back to universities about the match between their needs and the students that come to them. WIL can in this way be beneficial to employers in lowering risk to them in their graduate recruitment process.

WIL employer/university support systems

Sustainable WIL relationships can also be built between employer and university by agreeing to a developed system of student support. Both parties should be clear on the allocation of respective responsibilities for induction, specialist training, on-going supervision, and de-briefing. Having clear allocations of responsibility in place from the start is a key part in ensuring the long-term viability of WIL programmes.

WIL and student buy-in

In order to close the employer expectation/graduate capacity gap, students also need to buy into the idea of WIL. Universities can help with this in two ways. Firstly, universities can include students in the conversation about the creation of WIL programmes, asking them for feedback on the forms of live employer engagement that would benefit them in their specific areas of study. Secondly, universities can build accreditation into placements or other WIL-activities, thereby embedding WIL at all levels and incentivising deep-level student participation. WIL programmes can also bring obvious benefits to students, from offering the possibility of paid or unpaid CV-building work experience, to building a wide range of practical and specialised skills. In addition, universities are well placed to foster value-added knowledge-exchange activities around WIL, from peer networks on workplace skills to employer insights in the form of talks, seminars, and online discussion forums.

The University of the Future

Universities and employers often work together to negotiate targeted placements on an ad hoc basis, but WIL-programmes encourage larger-scale networks of cooperation, all of which can require significant ongoing investments of time, expertise, and resource from all parties. Alternatives to individual arrangements include off-the-shelf franchise models specifically developed to meet the needs of the Higher Education sector. Such models can mitigate costs by handling all the day-to-day setting up and management of placements, as well as providing training and assessment materials, and other collateral material and services. In the case of non-profit-making WIL franchises, income generated is fed back to the university, creating a truly sustainable model that benefits students, employers, and universities, and that is a key component of the University of the Future.

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