Increasingly, the rhetoric around university education is focused on how well a university degree prepares a young graduate to enter the labour market. Fears about an impending “skills-gap” (crudely put, the idea that Canada is graduating too many liberal arts grads and not enough plumbers), and a persistently tough job market for young people [1] have caused politicians and the media to question how valuable a university degree is in improving labour market outcomes.

The evidence suggests that university still represents a worthwhile investment for young people: a university degree leads to better, more stable employment outcomes over the course of a lifetime. Furthermore, estimates suggest that 70 per cent of all new jobs will require some form of post-secondary education.

Indeed, the correlation between high unemployment rates amongst marginalized youth and low post-secondary attainment rates are clear. For example:

• Aboriginal youth attend university at less than half the general participation rate and post unemployment rates of 23.5 per cent;
• Ontarians with disabilities attend university at just over half the general participation rate and post unemployment rates of 18 per cent; and
• University participation rates for those with family incomes between $25,000 and $50,000 per year are approximately 10 per cent lower than the regular Ontario rate.

Ailsa Blog Fig 1

However, despite the long-term benefits of a university education, particularly for marginalized groups, many young people – and their families – remain concerned about post-graduation employment prospects, especially given the context of increased demands by employers for “experience,” and the decline of training opportunities provided by employers.

OUSA has long recognized that one strategy for bridging this gap is investing in work-integrated learning (WIL) opportunities. Work-integrated learning can refer to a number of activities, in which learning within an academic institution is combined with practical application in a workplace setting. These activities can include, but are not limited to:

• Apprenticeships;
• Field experience;
• Mandatory professional practice;
• Co-operative placements;
• Internships and practicums;
• Applied research projects;
• Service learning. [3]

For students, the benefits of WIL are manifold: 82 per cent of employers who offer work-integrated learning offered post-graduate employment to a former co-op student or intern who worked at their workplace, and graduates of work-integrated learning opportunities tended to make about $2-3 more per hour than students who had not undertaken these opportunities. [4]

Earlier this year, as part of our pre-budget submission, [5] OUSA advocated for the expansion of WIL opportunities into underrepresented disciplines, in recognition that these opportunities are currently highly concentrated in areas such as business and engineering, with opportunities in the hard sciences, arts and humanities lagging far behind. As such, OUSA welcomed the recent tabling of a Private Members Bill, by MPP Peggy Sattler, [6] which aimed to establish an advisory council on work-integrated learning to explore strategies for increasing work-integrated learning, and to ensure these opportunities offer high quality experiences for students.

However, as we continued our analysis of the 2013 Ontario Post-Secondary Student Survey (OPSSS), it became evident that access to work-integrated learning opportunities was limited not only by field of study. Students from marginalized populations reported having lower participation rates in work-integrated learning opportunities, as illustrated in fig 2.

Ailsa Blog Fig 2

Indeed, for co-op placements (which represents the largest area of WIL for respondents in our survey), Aboriginal students and students with disabilities are over three times less likely to have participated in these opportunities, and the participation rate for low-income students is over half that than the rate reported by the general survey respondents.

Ailsa Blog Fig 3

Interestingly, despite all three populations reporting lower participation rates in internships generally, Aboriginal students and disabled students were in fact slightly more likely to have undertaken an unpaid internship. Students who had participated in unpaid internships across these three groups were further less likely to agree that participating in an unpaid opportunity had made their education ‘much better.’ This is clearly concerning: it suggests that where students from marginalized groups are able to secure a WIL opportunity it is less likely to be in a high-quality paid experience, despite the additional financial barriers that students in these groups are more likely to face.

There could be many reasons for students choosing not to pursue a co-operative education placement, including lack of awareness and informational barriers, or outside commitments (such as childcare) which may make the degree of flexibility and mobility required by these opportunities more difficult for certain populations. OUSA is particularly concerned that co-operative education fees may be acting as a barrier for the very learners who may seek to gain the greatest benefit from these types of experiences in the form of enhanced workplace skills and experiences, and the opportunity to build professional networks related to their field of study. Co-op fees (which can include registration and orientation expenses) can range from $400 to $1,500 at some institutions.

Given that students in Ontario already pay the highest tuition fees in the country, students from underrepresented groups have already made large financial commitments simply by choosing to attend university. Even if students are aware of the long-term benefits of pursuing WIL opportunities, the ‘sticker shock’ of co-op fees may prompt students from these groups to self-select out of these programs, and thereby avoid increasing their upfront costs. This is particularly likely to be a factor amongst populations where debt aversion and price sensitivity is high.

Given this evidence, OUSA’s recently released student election platform “An Educated Election: Ontario’s Student Platform” [7] calls for additional support to be extended to students from vulnerable populations who are interested in pursuing a work-integrated learning opportunity. One of OUSA’s core principals is that financial barriers should not prevent students from pursuing educational pathways: we therefore suggest that students who can demonstrate financial need should be eligible for grants to subsidize the cost of enrolling in a work-integrated learning program.

Students look forward to engaging with representatives from all parties on how to expand access to work-integrated learning opportunities, and to ensure our universities are adequately preparing Ontario’s young people to successfully transition to the workplace.

Ailsa Bristow
OUSA Research Analyst

[1] In March 2014 the Youth Unemployment rate in Ontario was estimated to be 15.7 per cent.
[2] Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (2013) Performance Indicators: A Report on Where We are and Where We Are Going. Toronto: HEQCO.
[3] Sattler, P. (2010) Work-integrated learning in Ontario’s Postsecondary Sector. Toronto: HEQCO.
[4] Sattler, P & Peters, J. (2012) Work-integrated Learning in Ontario’s Post-Secondary Sector: Survey of Employer Impressions. Toronto: HEQCO.
[5] Kinnon, Madden and Sloan (2014) Education Works: Envisioning a Fairer Society for Ontario’s Youth. Toronto, OUSA. http://www.ousa.ca/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Education-Works-Envisioning-a-Fairer-Society-for-Ontarios-Youth-2014-Budget-Submission-Small1.pdf
[6] Bill 172, Learning Through Workplace Experience Act, 2014: http://www.ontla.on.ca/web/bills/bills_detail.do?locale=en&Intranet=&BillID=2955
[7] Madden & Sloan (2014) An Educated Election: Ontario’s Student Platform. Toronto: OUSA.