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Canada’s Push to Bridge the School-Work Gap
March 16, 2018
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Work-integrated learning grows in popularity at universities across Canada –  an article by  University Affairs CanadaThe child of accountants, Vanessa Paulin-Savoie decided in high school that she didn’t want to follow in her parents’ footsteps. She loved reading and writing and did well in French, so she thought a translation degree at the Université de Moncton made sense.

Her parents weren’t so sure. They persuaded their daughter to apply to the university’s co-operative education program so that she could see what working in translation was really like. After her second year in the program, it took only one work placement for Ms. Paulin-Savoie to realize that translation “wasn’t for me.”

What she did love, though, was the marketing aspect of the work – writing communications materials in French and English for an Acadian heritage site near her home in Caraquet, New Brunswick. With her creative flair and an affinity for data, she found that marketing “uses all the things that I’m good at.” Now in her final year of a marketing degree, Ms. Paulin-Savoie is still in the co-op program.

The co-op model has a long and successful history at Canadian universities. It was first introduced to Canada by the University of Waterloo in 1957, followed by Université de Sherbrooke in 1964. Currently, about two-thirds of U of Waterloo’s undergraduates are enrolled in a co-op program; at U de Sherbrooke, it’s 40 percent.

However, these days co-op education is increasingly coming under the less familiar banner of “work-integrated learning,” or WIL. This bigger tent includes internships, service learning, practicums, field education, entrepreneurial incubators and even capstone research projects applied to community or industry issues. Recognizing the broader focus, the association that previously represented co-op programs rebranded itself as Co-operative Education and Work-Integrated Learning Canada last November.

Work-integrated learning and experiential learning (of which WIL is a subset) have become priorities for Canadian universities, and the push is coming both from industry and students. At Royal Roads University, where internships are a big part of its WIL activities, “we’re responding to student demand,” says Kyla McLeod, director of student services. “They want to be pushed and challenged.”

According to the 2015 Canadian University Survey Consortium (PDF), about 55 percent of undergraduate students had engaged in some form of WIL during their studies. Business groups have taken notice: in 2016, the Business/Higher Education Roundtable, a leadership forum for Canadian business and higher education, issued a report (2016) with a goal that all postsecondary students have some form of meaningful work-integrated learning before graduation. The Toronto Financial Services Alliance, a non-profit organization made up of industry, government and post-secondary institutions, was the first to take up the challenge, announcing in 2017 a pilot project called ASPIRE to create 10,000 WIL opportunities in Toronto’s financial services sector by the end of 2020.

What’s WIL?

Work-integrated learning has a variety of definitions. According to Co-operative Education and Work-integrated Learning Canada, WIL is “a model and process of education which formally and intentionally integrates a student’s academic studies with learning in a workplace or practice setting.”

Governments are also responding. In 2016, the Ontario government called for work-related learning for all college and university undergraduates, following recommendations from a government task force to expand WIL and a report (PDF) from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario on how to support such programs. The New Brunswick and Nova Scotia governments have also been exploring how to make experiential learning more widely available at postsecondary institutions.

Then, last August, the federal government announced details of a $73-million program to help create 10,000 new, paid work placements over four years for postsecondary students in science, technology, engineering and math (the STEM fields), as well as business. Placements under the Student Work-Integrated Learning Program, or SWILP, will be filtered through selected industry organizations that will also disperse the funds. A further $221 million will fund 10,000 placements over five years through Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization providing research internships primarily for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

For educators, WIL is about applying different forms of pedagogy, and expanding students’ knowledge and life experiences. But, for students, economics is also part of the equation. They want to make sure they’re in the right program early on and want the experience that will lead to good jobs. At Montreal’s École de technologie supérieure, where all students are required to do three paid internships during their studies, “this gives them a considerable advantage once they arrive on the labour market,” says the school’s director of communications, Antoine Landry.

Governments see WIL as a tool to support a strong knowledge economy and provide jobs for youth. Businesses, especially those complaining of skills shortages or mismatches, see WIL as a way to equip students with the skills to move more smoothly into competitive industries after graduation.

The biotech industry is a good example. Rob Henderson, the CEO of BioTalent Canada, one of several industry organizations that the federal government has hired to help run SWILP, says a majority of biotech firms report a skills shortage. Clearly, says Mr. Henderson, there’s a school-work gap that needs to be bridged. “We have an unparalleled educational system,” he says. “However, we have to equip [students] to be able to make a living in the industry. It has to be practical … and I applaud our university and college partners who have come forward and said they’re listening and they want to do something about it.”

Meanwhile, students and their families are demanding a surer return on their investment in higher education. “It was really important to be reassured that I was in the right program within the first few years so that I knew I was not wasting time,” says Marie-Pier Harvey, who graduated from the University of Ottawa last December with a commerce degree that had a co-op component. By then, she’d had experiences at four workplaces under her belt: in her university marketing and communications department, with a community mental health agency, an advertising agency and then a Barcelona start-up.

International students have shown particular interest in WIL. Some 44 percent of the U de Moncton’s 180 co-op students are international, even though they represent just 17 percent of the university’s roughly 4,200 students.


  1. It is interesting to see that Government is making money is being made available to support paid work placements.

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