Work placements: paying people is the fair thing to do


As work integrated learning increases, we cannot afford for only middle-class domestic students to be comfortably able to access opportunities

The Universities Accord Discussion Paper asks about universities collaboration with industry and notes that “by international standards, the current links in Australia between higher education and industry in learning and teaching are under-developed”.

The paper goes on to note the challenges work-integrated learning poses for students from regional, rural and remote areas.

It asks:

* how could an Accord support cooperation between providers, accreditation bodies, government and industry to ensure graduates have relevant skills for the workforce?

* how should placement arrangements and work-integrated learning (WIL) in higher education change in the decades ahead?

What is left unspoken in the paper is the issue of payment to students for their work.

QUT’s Christine Morley notes that this is particularly an issue for degrees which require mandatory work placements. She argues, “amid a cost-of-living crisis, with rising university fees, we can no longer expect students to do this work for free” and points out that “students also often have to forgo paid work” in order to meet their work placement requirements.

These were issues I was pleased to discuss with Norah McRae and colleagues at the University of Waterloo in Ontario recently as part of a study tour, designed in part, to learn about best practice in work integrated learning in higher education.

It was good to learn more about the expectations in Canada and elsewhere, that higher education work placements should be paid, and to hear specifically about the University of Waterloo’s  co-op programme, which sees students undertake four-six paid work placements of four months each during their degree. Students typically earn between Can$8400 and $19 800 per work term. Unsurprisingly 75 per cent of undergraduate students cite the university’s co-op programme as the key reason for choosing to study there.

As the Government looks to migration reforms to encourage more high achieving international students to Australia (with the intention of retaining them as skilled migrants on graduation), and as it also looks to encourage more domestic students from under-represented groups to enter higher education – the issue of paid work placements will be critical.

With the Accord likely to recommend reforms to increase WIL, we cannot afford for only middle-class domestic students to be comfortably able to access these opportunities.

If employers in Canada and elsewhere in the world pay students on work placements, Australia should expect the same. These opportunities need to be equally open to all students.

Claire Field visited the University of Waterloo with representatives of MEGT and wishes to thank Dr McRae and her colleagues for their time and valuable insights