Higher education is vital to re-ignite the Australian economy post-COVID and ensure a globally competitive and sustainable workforce. Work-integrated Learning (WIL), where industry and university work in partnership to provide real-world learning for students, is being increasingly prioritised as a mechanism to secure national recovery.

However, barriers to university-industry partnerships are often created by ineffective, ill-informed and hierarchical WIL leadership. Poor decision-making, un-coordinated institutional strategies, inflexible policies and burdensome infrastructure hinder WIL expansion. Despite some examples of great WIL leadership from organisations such as the Australian Collaborative Education Network (ACEN) and the Australian Council of Deans of Science, the impact of COVID on WIL has intensified a pressing need for exceptional WIL leadership, both institutionally and nationally.

Ineffectual WIL leadership is of particular concern with the recent release of the National Priorities and Industry Linkage Fund (NPILF), which has WIL and university-industry engagement as the central focus. WIL requires visionary leadership, which continues to be a challenge for universities, individually and collectively. The Academic Leadership for fieldwork coordinators project described a WIL leader as a developer, innovator, broker, deliverer and monitor. The WIL Leadership Framework identified that WIL leadership is a complex undertaking, which encompasses “the development, promotion, organisation, management and delivery of WIL”.

Shaping the future-fit WIL vision requires leaders to: create and sustain WIL relationships; foster WIL engagement and student learning; communicate and influence WIL; and drive outcomes. Furthermore, the National WIL Strategy outlined the nation-building need for an integrated framework and called for both national and institutional leadership to accelerate growth in WIL. Despite a plethora of evidence-based research identifying the need for strategic leadership at all, and particularly higher, institutional levels to drive WIL, little has changed.

In 2021, strong WIL leadership will be critical to drive NPILF priorities and achieve the desired national impact. Institutions, peak bodies and industry need to recognise, encourage, develop and support WIL leadership. Particularly in the current context, visionary, flexible and inclusive WIL leadership is critical for institutions to ensure prudent use of funds, delivery of effective strategies and to empower and resource staff to be innovative.

Inspirational leadership is imperative for WIL to grow and thrive for the national benefit and to instil employability capabilities in students that set them up for success in their future careers.

Associate Professor Sonia Ferns Adjunct, Curtin University; Managing Partner LearnWork Consulting [email protected]

Judie Kay, Vice Chair Partnerships and Programs, Executive Committee, World Association for Work Integrated Education, WACE; Consultant Graduate Employability, RMIT; Co-founder/ Past President, ACEN [email protected]


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