Building Bridges: Creating Mutually Beneficial Workplace Integrated Learning (WIL) Opportunities in East Gippsland
Sneh Bhardwaj1, Andrew O’Loughlin1 and Damian Morgan2
Australian students living in regional and remote areas including Indigenous Australian students suffer many disadvantages when receiving and utilising work-integrated learning (WIL) opportunities. Several reasons – for instance the unpaid nature of WIL placements and lack of support strategies – explain proven roadblocks for regional and remote area (RRA) students. Another confounding factor is that the student population in the regional and remote regions is from different universities but requires similar WIL experiences. This project considers how the WIL experience can be improved for RRA students living within the Gippsland East region of Victoria in order to make them employment ready. We approach the study aim by understanding the strengths and the weaknesses of the current WIL programs based on the opinions/experiences of the most vital stakeholder in WIL (i.e., students). More specifically, this research focuses on obtaining a better understanding of regionally based students’ views and opinions regarding their WIL and community engagement experience, how this relates to their course of study, and what improvements can be made to ensure that regional students effectively utilise this aspect of their course that in essence matches knowledge and practice. An assessment of the perspectives and experiences of students regarding WIL placements reveals the realised benefits from undertaking WIL, types of challenges and possible opportunities concerning WIL to broaden the pool of experiences for students. WIL experiences here are hypothesised not only to provide students with direct support, including career enhancement, but also to contribute to local resilience, economic recovery, and economic development with education being a major driver.
The three research questions that this research project answers are:
- What is the current attitude towards WIL placements held by students?
- What do students consider to be the primary barriers and constraints to undertaking WIL placements?
- Do current WIL opportunities meet student needs including education program requirements?
This pilot project, commissioned by the National Centre for Equity in Higher Education (NCEHE), surveys a probability sample of nine regional and remote area students. The survey collected responses from students on a wide range of factors that influence their engagement, or lack of it, in WIL and community engagement. The data includes highly informative qualitative comments on critical contextual issues as well as the analysis performed on the qualitative data obtained from in-depth interviews with four survey respondents.
Due to the limited data collection, we present this research study as a pilot study. Thus, this project’s additional original aim to find a WIL framework that increases the participation of businesses functioning in the scoped region had to be dropped.
There were multiple factors contributing to the non-availability of data in the scoped region from the business organisations that are mostly small business enterprises (SMEs), with the average size of businesses in East Gippsland being five employees. These businesses are still recovering from the devastating consequences of economic recession, drought, bushfire, COVID-19, and natural disasters associated with climate change during the past two years. We thus recommend conducting another study that evaluates the results of our pilot study by including more students as well as businesses from East Gippsland and other related areas to add the missing dimension to this study’s results.
The findings of this pilot study generally confirm the previously known challenges encountered by regional and remote area (RRA) students participating in WIL and the nature of their WIL experiences. Notwithstanding that, the findings point to some vital flaws in how WIL programs are formulated and implemented in regional and remote areas and the challenges and opportunities in the WIL space that require intervention. Key findings include:
- A clear majority (88 per cent) of respondents participating in WIL felt financially constrained over the unpaid nature of WIL placements and losing their work hours due to these placements. They want to be paid for the work they perform doing their WIL placements.
- More than half of respondents felt unsettled at unfamiliar WIL placements due to ill-structured induction programs (by employers) and lack of pre-placement sessions by universities. They revealed that there was no dedicated industry mentor to guide them and the fact that their placement supervisors in the industry are too time- and resource-poor to help them with WIL related tasks. These students felt uncared for and ignored by their industry mentors and felt unwelcomed at their WIL workplaces.
- Although a clear majority of respondents (66 per cent) were allowed to shadow their WIL work colleagues still less than 50 per cent of respondents agreed that they used their WIL time doing meaningful work.
- Despite the above constraints in the way of having positive WIL experiences, an overwhelming majority (>80 per cent) of respondents realise the benefits WIL placements bring for them. They agree that WIL placements promote a better understanding of their academic curriculum, how the industry works and enhance their employability.
- The majority of the RRA respondents want WIL placements to be close to where they live and given that most are mature age learners (>26 years), they want flexibility regarding duration and WIL placements designed to suit their time and other commitments.
- Students living in remote and rural areas most likely to be satisfied with WIL experiences will be those who,
- would be paid for WIL placement work,
- have the flexibility to accommodate their professional and family commitments alongside the WIL placements,
- get a dedicated industry mentor to continuously guide them,
- receive proper induction at the WIL workplace aimed at providing them information about the focal industry, nature of WIL placement work and,
- have a WIL coordinator at their academic institute to contact should they encounter any challenge at their WIL workplace.
In light of the above findings, higher education institutes (HEIs) are called upon to remove structural deficiencies in how WIL placements are organised. For instance, when finalising WIL host organisations, HEIs can take previous WIL attendees’ reviews of WIL hosts into consideration.
This pilot study, subject to further research, raises fundamental questions concerning the institutional strategies required to increase students’ financial capacity, accommodate their professional and family obligations, and enhance their resilience in the wake of recent disruptions to WIL opportunities in regional and remote Australia such as the East Gippsland region. These questions are: Is there more to be gained for the RRA students by providing paid WIL placements closer to their homes and introducing flexible WIL placement arrangements? Or should governments step forward to fund smaller businesses in remote regions to appoint dedicated WIL mentors who can take the pressure off their regular staff to support WIL attendees? Such a response to the management of social and economic isolation of RRA students at WIL workplaces may provide to these students critical management and other workplace skills, valuable to employers within the region, elsewhere in Australia, and internationally.
The report suggests a number of strategies that might be adopted to increase the more meaningful participation of RRA students in WIL activities. For example:
- Specifying a WIL approach that views regional and remote WIL students as a separate cohort; the new approach will depend on the specific needs of students living in regional and remote areas to increase the likelihood of their positive WIL placement experiences.
- Making available governmental financial resources to address identified barriers such as paying for WIL work and appointing a WIL mentor at organisations willing to participate in WIL.
- Creating a comprehensive WIL framework to increase understanding and structure for regional and remote area students required to undertake WIL placements as part of their academic curriculums. For example, embedding flexibility suiting equity students’ work and family and organising WIL placements close to home.
- Educating RRA students through an advertising campaign about the importance of WIL for their future careers, targeting students who are not well informed about WIL.
- Getting universities to liaise with WIL hosts to understand how students can be supported to fulfil their WIL requirements, for instance by negotiating the appointment of a dedicated WIL mentor. Also, universities can investigate examples of effective university support strategies shared across the education sector.
The scope for WIL to increase in rural and regional areas is immense. This requires addressing some of the key barriers identified by students from remote and rural areas in this research. Once this happens, higher education providers will be providing these students with the ability to integrate theory and practice, taking the stress off their WIL work placements, and safeguarding their wellbeing.
This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.
2James Cook University