Student Identity and Work-integrated Learning (WIL): Exploring Student Experiences of WIL by Demographic

Student Identity and Work-integrated Learning (WIL): Exploring Student Experiences of WIL by Demographic was written by Ken Chatoor & Lena Balata, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

System-wide data collection is needed to improve the work-integrated learning experience for students from underrepresented groups

Work-integrated learning (WIL) is playing an increasing role in preparing students with the skills and experience needed for the job market. Not all students experience WIL equally and many encounter barriers at different points in the process. A new data brief from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) finds that women, those with disabilities and immigrants have significant disparities in their experience with WIL. System-wide administrative data on WIL in Ontario is currently unavailable but would allow policymakers and researchers to further investigate the differences between demographic groups and develop more inclusive and responsive programs.

HEQCO recently published a report discussing the benefits and challenges of remote-based WIL, based on a fall 2021 survey of 312 students asking questions about their experience and satisfaction during their WIL placements in the 2020-21 academic year. This data set was used again to examine student experiences and varying rates of satisfaction with WIL across institutions, sectors and academic programs, and across delivery types (i.e., remote or in-person) through the lens of identity, including gender, disability and immigration status.

Respondents who identified as men were 10% more likely to say they were satisfied with their WIL experience compared to women. Women were more likely to be in unpaid WIL placements, more likely to say they felt uncomfortable at work, that they had challenges with work culture and that they experienced barriers during their WIL. Additionally, women experience harassment and inappropriate behaviour in WIL disproportionately with 20% of women in in-person WIL placements reported experiencing unwanted sexual behaviour during their placement compared to only 1% of men.

Students with disabilities were less likely to express satisfaction in WIL than students without disabilities, particularly in the application and interview stages of the process. They also were more likely to experience mental health challenges and feelings of being ignored by others in the workplace.

Immigrants expressed a similar level of satisfaction with their WIL experience compared to students who were born in Canada. However, they reported greater challenges at the application, interview and hiring stages. Immigrants were also 23% more likely to say they experienced barriers during the WIL placement itself.

Data about diversity and inclusion in WIL are scarce and evaluations rarely include a diversity lens. A lack of data reflecting the personal lived experiences of underrepresented students makes it difficult to address equity gaps in WIL activities and outcomes. Surveys and qualitative research are useful tools for identifying gaps at a high level and illuminating areas for further research, but in the absence of system-wide data it is not possible to conduct analyses within smaller populations, such as individual First Nations groups within Indigenous groups, specific identities within the LGBTQAI+ community or disaggregating data for racialized students.

For further discussion of this data brief, please read the recent blog post by the authors – Student Identity and Work-integrated Learning (WIL): Exploring Student Experiences of WIL by Demographic.