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PHILIPPS, TURCOTTE and NICHOLS

The downsides of post-secondary co-op work placements Add to ...

Lisa Philipps is professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School. Joseph Turcotte holds a PhD from the York University-Ryerson University joint program in communication and culture. Leslie Nichols holds a PhD in policy studies from Ryerson University.

Canadian higher education is entering a new age of “work-integrated” learning. More and more students are seeking a co-op placements, internships or other hands-on work experience as part of their postsecondary program.

Long present at community colleges, universities are now also moving into this space, and policy makers are urging them to do more. The most recent federal budget earmarked $73-million for experiential learning partnerships. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has set the highest bar yet, with a goal of funding “more placements so that every student completes at least one experiential learning opportunity before graduating from high school, and another before finishing college or university.”

But can we assume that co-op is always beneficial, regardless of the student’s circumstances or the quality of their placement? Is it a good deal for everyone?

The potential upsides are well known. Students gain practical experience that can help them get a decent job in a labour market where a lot of employment is precarious. Employers can gain an edge in recruiting new talent. When it works as intended, the co-op model serves both educational and economic goals, generating positive spillovers for society as a whole. But it can also go awry. In studying the regulation of work-integrated learning, we found it carries a surprising number of downside risks that also need attention.

Sending students out into workplaces muddies their legal status. It’s not always clear who is responsible to ensure they are learning and that working conditions are fair and reasonable. In most provinces, placements for an academic program are exempt from employment standards law. While some students are paid minimum wage or better, the reality is that many are not, and provincial law generally does not require it. Hard statistics are lacking, but co-op managers report that unpaid placements remain common, particularly in female-dominated professions, raising troubling questions about equitable access to paid forms of co-op learning.

Not all students can afford to spend four months working for free. Many hold down paid jobs while studying in order to afford school, or to help support their families. Paid work can be fitted around a typical class schedule, but this gets harder when it comes time for the co-op placement. Not all employers are able or willing to grant time off for an employee to complete a co-op term.

This puts students in a dilemma. They may quit a paid job to complete a co-op term, even an unpaid one. In this case, they will not only forego wages but are also denied employment insurance. Their other option is to try and manage the paid job on top of the co-op placement – an exhausting proposition.

Unless supported by EI, bursaries, or some other financing to participate in work-integrated learning, students from non-affluent backgrounds may be better off simply sticking to the paid job they already have.

Unpaid placements are not necessarily unfair per se, if the student is receiving academic credit as well as genuine training and mentorship . But this assumes that schools and employers are working closely together to ensure a high-quality experience. Monitoring and supervision require resources, and our research indicates inconsistency in this area.

Many placements are great experiences, but others leave students vulnerable to harassment and other discrimination. Human-rights codes apply, but paid or unpaid, the problem lies in an extreme imbalance of power. A student who must pass an internship to graduate, or who does not want to risk losing a future job reference or employment opportunity, is motivated to avoid rocking the boat.

Discrimination can also prevent some students from accessing work-integrated learning in the first place. For example, universities and colleges are getting much better at accommodating students with disabilities in classroom settings, but are struggling to do so in co-op work settings.

Another issue is the growing demand for police record checks before a student is accepted to participate in co-op. Despite human-rights guidelines to the contrary, some police forces continue to release information regarding police contact that did not result in charges or convictions, including interactions due to so-called “carding,” or where police were called to address a mental-health incident or family conflict. Students may then be denied a placement, even where the record raises no good reason to do so.

Our purpose in raising these issues is not to disparage work-integrated learning or to discourage its expansion. When done well, it can enhance classroom education and benefit students and employers. However, our study does show the need for thoughtful implementation, adequate resourcing, much better understanding of legal rights and responsibilities, and possibly some legal reform to support the quality and accessibility of these programs. We should not ignore the downside risks of work-integrated learning in the rush to expand it, nor assume it is the right choice for every student.

The authors’ report on the regulation of work-integrated learning was published by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario on Oct. 25.

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