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NCSEHE research project update — Access to Work Integrated Learning: Influence of Communities of Practice

The NCSEHE conducts an annual Research Grants Program, building a solid evidence base to improve higher education access and outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Access to Work Integrated Learning: Influence of Communities of Practice, led by Dr Natalie Lloyd (University of Technology Sydney) is one of the 13 projects selected in the 2017 funding round.


This project explores the impact of the local community (engineering industry and higher education communities) on increasing participation and success (a positive experience contributing to student employability and wellbeing) in Work Integrated Learning (WIL) for equity students of engineering.

The targeted equity groups include women in non-traditional areas, culturally and linguistically diverse students, and regional and remote students, due to the viable participation rates of these groups.

Data will be sourced from students’ WIL reports submitted to the Faculties for graduation and accreditation purposes. Students’ narratives of their WIL experiences and measures of resilience will be used to generate recommendations to enhance the accessibility and impact of WIL.

Project activities and preliminary findings

To date, seven interviews have been conducted with engineering students/new graduates across two institutions and 17 WIL placements (internships).

The interviews have revealed the following for study participants:

  • Most (76 per cent) of the internships are 12-week blocks over summer (a traditional mode of delivery of internships for engineering) and around half of internships were unpaid. Unpaid WIL was perceived as a last alternative or of potential if the unpaid opportunity were of such quality to outweigh the negative financial and perception impacts.
  • All participants had support and industry networks arising from family and friends. Access to internships, in particular the first internship, was through their network and subsequent internships were generated from the expanded network and experiences.
  • The experiences in internships were variable, albeit all had given students exposure to the engineering industry. All participants indicated their internships increased their employability, helped secure their graduate or later internship positions, or gave scope for meaningful responses in interviews.

Survey data has been collected from 29 participants including international and low socioeconomic status (SES) students. This data is currently being analysed, including respondents’ resilience levels.

Preliminary observations of the data show:

  • Unpaid work was taken due to the imperative to graduate or the need to increase employability.
  • The work experiences were beneficial in terms of career planning and progression; (re)focusing energies on education; and understanding the engineering workplace and profession.
  • Internships added to students’ time and financial pressures: less than one in five respondents had paid employment in addition to the internship; over half of the respondents had one paid job at the same time as their internship; and 35 per cent of respondents studied simultaneously with internships.

The preliminary findings indicate the importance of WIL to student engineers. Areas in which the communities of practice (higher education institutions, professional bodies, and industry and student clubs) can enhance that experience are likely to include:

  • increased opportunities and support for students to build their network with industry
  • touch points or other mechanisms of support for students during internships
  • streamlined application and recruitment processes
  • stakeholder recognition that unpaid internships may diminish the potential of some student engineers to flourish
  • alternatives to traditional industry-based internships including opportunities to establish and build industry networks.

The final report, Access to Work Integrated Learning: Influence of Communities of Practice, will be published on the NCSEHE website in 2019.

More information about the projects funded under the 2017 Research Grants Program is available here.

Posted 7 August 2018 Posted in Culturally and linguistically diverse, General, Regional, rural and remote