WIL Basics

In WIL Basics, we look at what WIL is; the benefits and challenges of implementing and engaging in WIL; and the current state of, and a vision for, WIL in science. 

Science students participate in WIL less than other students, with WIL less common and more ad hoc in ‘generalist’ science degrees than those focused on a specific career path 1.2, 1.4, 7.3.

  • Only 13% of natural and physical science students, and 7% of IT students, participate in an internship, practicum or placement – in comparison to 19% of students across all fields of education3.3.
  • Only 3% of science students, and even fewer IT students, participate in an industry placement of 12 weeks or longer, even though employers prefer longer-term placements.
  • Only 1 in 7 students studying natural and physical sciences complete industry-based projects, although almost 75% of IT students engage in this type of WIL1.4.
  • Science students report the lowest levels of active learning, work-integrated learning and career-readiness of any field of education3.3.

 Government, industry and university leaders advocate increased opportunities for students to engage in WIL7.1, 1.2, 7.2.

WIL is learning activities that incorporate work, employment and careers. The term ‘WIL’ is used to describe a wide variety of activities and often used interchangeably with other terms, such as workplace learning, industry-based learning, collaborative or cooperative education1.6, 1.7.  We can best define WIL by considering its key characteristics and purposes1.3.

 

WIL:

  • is a complex mix of activities with varying degrees of focus and engagement with work1.7;
  • occurs ”at various levels across a range of tasks that are authentic (the task resembles those required in professional life) or proximal (the setting resembles professional contexts)”6.6;
  • is effective only where it features “authentic activities, with complexities that match those in real practice”;
  • should be integrated and scaffolded “within a purposely designed curriculum”, to allow students to draw maximum benefit from the experience1.7;
  • requires structured reflection to help students integrate theory with practice, recognise what they have gained from the experience, and identify gaps for further development6.4;
  • brings few, if any, benefits when focused only on locating students in a workplace, rather than engagement in meaningful tasks1.3.
Graduate employment rates have been gradually declining in recent years, especially amongst natural and physical science graduates6.3. Universities cannot guarantee jobs, but they can develop graduates’ employability through understanding and attributes that help them find or create meaningful work6.6. WIL is recognised as an effective way of developing those attributes7.1, 2.2, 1.7.  

Benefits for students

WIL engagement has numerous benefits for students3.1, including:

  • gaining employment more quickly after graduation than students without WIL experience1.5;
  • increased confidence in their knowledge and abilities6.5;
  • increased understanding of work environments and organizational culture6.5;
  • improved communication, teamwork, problem-solving, research, critical analysis, time-management and self-management skills2.2, 1.5;
  • an opportunity to develop professional networks;
  • a chance to ‘try industries on for size’1.7;
  • greater enthusiasm for learning and better understanding of the relevance of particular topics1.5.

 

Benefits for employers

WIL provides employers with the opportunity to contribute to graduate training and development, fulfil corporate responsibility obligations and build relationships with universities2.2, 1.7. The Ai Group2.1 compiled the following list of benefits for industry:  

  • receiving an injection of new thinking and fresh ideas from technologically savvy students
  • assistance with short-term projects that otherwise would not be possible
  • boosting the mentoring skills for existing employees
  • improving employee engagement and workplace culture through enthusiastic students
  • developing connections with universities for research and development
  • connecting with Masters of Research and PhD candidates to scope research projects
  • improving corporate image by giving back to the university and industry sector
  • connecting with students who will be future work-ready graduates for the company
  • trialling a potential recruit at the company
  • building a talent pipeline
  • supporting the development of a multi-generational culture in the organisation
  • developing a global understanding of business etiquette, communication styles, cultural differences and intelligence about overseas markets if engaging with international students.

 

Benefits for universities

The benefits of WIL also extend to universities, including:

  • the opportunity to engage with industry, building relationships that support industry input into curricula and may lead to the development of research partnerships1.7;
  • marketing benefits from courses that are clearly linked to industry and industry practices, and strong graduate employment outcomes3.4;
  • improved student engagement and retention3.2.
Science students have diverse employment outcomes6.1. This makes it difficult to identify the type of WIL activities, industries and organisations which will be most meaningful1.2. Developing and delivering WIL can also be time-consuming and resource-intensive, and involves balancing the perspectives and priorities of multiple stakeholders2.2, 1.2, 1.7.   It is important to ensure that all students have equal opportunity to access and benefit from these experiences1.6. Some challenges for students accessing WIL include:

  • financial penalties associated with childcare, travel costs or lost income while participating in unpaid WIL1.7;
  • reduced flexibility associated with WIL activities with specific time commitments e.g. placements or practicums1.4;
  • preference for domestic students by employers using WIL to find and recruit future employees1.1, 1.4;
  • challenges associated with language skills and cultural differences;
  • support around disclosing and discussing disabilities or medical conditions1.1;
  • inequitable opportunities for lower-achieving students where WIL opportunities are limited1.7.

Challenges related to access are primarily associated with off-campus WIL experiences e.g. placements and internships. Alternatives include industry-inspired projects, case studies, simulations, problem-based learning and other on-campus WIL.   From an employers’ perspective it can be difficult to know who to approach about engaging in WIL unless there are existing industry-faculty relationships. Other challenges include:

  • planning appropriate tasks and projects;
  • providing meaningful experiences without overburdening supervising staff;
  • working within university timeframes that may not align with company practices;
  • understanding expectations for student preparation, support and mentoring1.1, 2.2.
Our vision for WIL in science is that every student studying science at an Australian university will have opportunities to participate in meaningful WIL experiences that:          

  • are embedded throughout their program of study,
  • are contextualized and scaffolded so that students can integrate disciplinary knowledge with industry practices, and develop employability capabilities,
  • take into account the disciplinary context, and the needs, understanding and skills levels of the students.