Access, quality and wellbeing in engineering Work Integrated Learning placements
Natalie Lloyd (University of Technology Sydney), Megan Paull (Murdoch University), Teena Clerke (University of Technology Sydney) and Sally Male (The University of Western Australia)
Access, quality and wellbeing in engineering Work Integrated Learning placements: Implications for equity and diversity is a mixed methods study which examines student engineers’ experiences in Work Integrated Learning (WIL) placements. The study provides insights into how to guide improvements in engineering WIL practice, particularly in relation to access, quality and wellbeing for students in equity groups.
This report outlines the study, its methods and findings that build on knowledge and insights gained from a Systematic Literature Review (SLR) of international research studies and current debates on WIL access, quality and wellbeing, engineering-specific WIL placements and unpaid WIL. The review informed the analysis of data collected from three sources; institutional WIL placement information, student responses to a quantitative and qualitative online questionnaire, and semi-structured interviews with students about their WIL placement experiences supplemented by interviews with university staff working in WIL-related programs in the four participating universities. The purpose was to examine student engineers’ narratives of their WIL placement experiences and provide insight into their perceptions of the ease or difficulty of access, degree of placement quality, contribution to or detraction from wellbeing, support or lack thereof; and students’ development of engineering professional identity.
There are three key findings from this research.
- Engineering WIL placements are frequently unpaid and underpaid in contrast with arguments that such placements across all industries have a poor record as a route to paid work and are subject to access inequities.
- Students face challenges in accessing quality WIL placements especially for Women In Non-Traditional Areas (WINTA) and Non-English Speaking Background (NESB) students. These challenges include systemic prejudices, including biases about students’ motivations, capabilities and discretionary power; and detracting workplace cultures including those which are discriminatory.
- Recruitment and employability are driven by practices that privilege high social capitals and vulnerability is exacerbated by the self-sourced nature of WIL placements, compounded by WIL requirements that are mandated by the university.
Building on the evidence presented in this report, the authors make the following recommendations to address the key findings:
- Industry and universities should acknowledge and address the frequency of unpaid, underpaid and paid-for WIL placements and seek to redress associated equity and wellbeing issues. To minimise risks of exclusion or detrimental impact, particularly for students with less discretion to accept unpaid, underpaid and paid-for WIL because of socioeconomic factors, the following are recommended:
- Define, implement and advocate minimum ‘living wage’ remuneration and equity targets for WIL placements.
- Increase transparency, systematic collection and reporting of WIL placement data.
- Propose and provide alternative, less intense, innovative WIL models if unpaid placements are unavoidable.
- Students should be empowered as co-designers of WIL experiences and policy to support a cultural shift from compliance-driven engagement in WIL to a career curation mindset. To minimise poor quality placements that pose a risk to students’ wellbeing and perpetuate prejudices, the following are recommended:
- Engage students and graduates to inform the development of university and industry WIL placement policy and curriculum design.
- Foster a culture of quality, outcomes-driven WIL placements across the triple helix of university-industry-student.
- Increase university staffing and resourcing to strengthen preparedness, integration and support.
- Universities should consider other disciplinary models and practices, such as those in health and education, to provide equitable access to quality engineering WIL placements. To minimise the burden on students to source, apply for, accept or persevere with poor quality, exploitative or otherwise unsatisfactory placements that may be detrimental to their wellbeing, the following are recommended:
- Allocate students to university and industry-partnered WIL.
- Broaden in-curriculum industry-student engagement.
- Remove or reduce the ‘hours’ dependent completion hurdle.