Higher education is usually seen as a way for individuals and families to improve their economic status. Research shows, though, that graduates can remain unemployed for up to a year. In developing countries, in particular, the labour force is often growing faster than the labour market.
Among the reasons for the unemployment rate are the needs and expectations of the labour market and the quality of graduates leaving higher education institutions. Research into graduate work readiness has shown that there’s a gap between what universities produce in their graduates and what employers expect.
Employers are often cited as saying that the graduates who enter the workplace are ill-equipped for the realities of the South African labour market. This gap between employers and universities is referred to as the skills gap. There are critical skills shortages in the science, engineering, technology and information technology fields while universities are seeing increasing enrolment in business, economics and commerce, followed by education and engineering. Despite the enrolments aligning more recently, there remains a gap between the skills graduates possess and what employers expect.
Work-integrated learning is one of the techniques that higher education institutions use to address the skills gap. It exposes students to real or simulated work environments where they can develop the skills their future employers expect. Work-integrated learning has a long history in higher education, with studies as far back as 1976.
While the evidence on work-integrated learning has been mixed in some disciplines, there is a general consensus that these programmes improve the skills and employability of graduates. Work-integrated learning is therefore an integral component of the Research Masters programme on which we teach.
We conducted a study that was aimed at understanding how students in the discipline of psychology benefited from this alternative approach to teaching and learning. The findings of the study indicated that students primarily focused on developing technical skills. Secondly, they worked on developing their identities as researchers. Thirdly, students made use of multiple sources of information to develop their sense of the workplace.
During their studies, students keep reflective diaries about what they are learning. We analysed the diaries of six cohorts of students to understand the work placement learning experiences that take place from the students’ perspective. These were work placements where students worked for companies for a period of 10 to 20 weeks.
In the reflective diaries students described the strategies they used to evaluate new or complex information. They reflected on gaps in their learning and identified areas in which they required further development. They recorded their thoughts about how they expected to contribute to the organisation they joined.
For instance, very few students had worked in a formal work environment prior to the course and therefore had never seen or signed an employment contract. By consulting lecturers and peers, students were able to decipher the contracts to understand the commitments they were undertaking. At a more technical level, students were exposed to skills such as data cleaning and analysis. Again, they used networks to fill in the gaps in their knowledge about these processes.
These reflections highlighted gaps in graduates’ knowledge. A previous study indicated that employers in this field, such as market research firms, held strong preferences for statistical skills, the ability to present and the ability to draft professional reports as key skills.
Students’ experiences and feedback were integrated into group discussions in their academic programme.
The findings of our study highlight how integrating work experiences and the course curriculum can support students during their transition from formal learning to the first phases of career development.
When we viewed student learning as a network, we were able to incorporate industry partners into the learning process. This shift also changed our role as lecturers from conveyors of knowledge to facilitators who help students find their way.
One of the key benefits of our work-integrated learning programme was that students were able to build and develop relationships that would follow them into their early years in the workplace.
In turn, lecturers became part of more extensive networks when students entered the workplace. Being connected with them created learning opportunities for future students. The extensive network assists the university to understand what skills the workplace actually uses and needs.
Work-integrated learning thus proved to be a crucial part of our programme. It’s an approach that has been followed successfully in many countries but there’s still much to be done to standardise it in South Africa.
We propose that the learning process should be created through collaboration between the student, the host organisation (which is often the potential employer) and the higher education institution. This will help develop skills that are specific to an industry.