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About half of graduating students have learning-related work experience, survey finds

Data from the 2018 Canadian University Survey Consortium report provide insights on the school-to-work transition.

By ANQI SHEN | JUL 18 2018

Just over half of undergraduate students in their final year of study had some sort of learning-related work experience, four-fifths were satisfied with the quality of their education, and more than two-thirds expected to enroll in further education within the next five years. Those are some of the top-tier findings of the latest student survey from the Canadian University Survey Consortium, released in late June.

CUSC conducts a survey of graduating students every three years. The other two years it conducts surveys of either first-year or middle-year students. The graduating-student survey focuses on the transition out of undergraduate studies, providing insights on students’ goals and employment, satisfaction with their university, debt, financing of education and demographics. The 2018 survey received 14,760 student responses in the winter term from 32 participating universities.

Work-integrated learning

The 2018 survey found that 56 percent of graduating students have some “work and learning program experience” (see Table 1; hover over for numbers). This includes co-ops, practicums, service learning, and paid and unpaid internships. That number is virtually unchanged from 2015, when 55 percent of respondents had such an experience. In 2016, the Business/Higher Education Roundtable said it would like to see 100 percent of students participate in some form of work-integrated learning prior to graduation.

Of the 60 percent of students who were employed in their final year of study in 2018 – working about 18 hours per week – 42 percent said their work “has at least somewhat of a negative impact on their academic performance.” Tyler Hall, president of CUSC and manager of institutional analysis at Carleton University, said “there’s a correlation we’ve seen where students who work more than 10 or 15 hours do start to see a more negative impact of employment on their academic work – for those who are studying full-time that term – but those who study less than 10 hours generally see a positive impact.”

Overall, 44 percent of graduating students volunteered at least occasionally on or off campus in the past year, including 24 percent who participated often or very often in community service. Of the 37 percent who said they had volunteered in their chosen field of employment, female students (42 percent) were more likely than male students (26 percent) to have done so. However, this does not account for differences in programs of study which may have a gender skew.

In a poll conducted by Abacus Data this year, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) found a similar proportion of students, 51 percent, who said they’d had paid work experience through their academic program, and 57 percent who say they had an unpaid stint in their field. The biggest reason (56 percent) identified for not participating in a work placement was that no opportunities were available through an academic program.

“I think what’s really valuable about paid opportunities is that it increases the accessibility of who’s able to do them. Also, students have reported that paid experiences tend to be more engaging and more in line with the career expectations they have for the future,” said Manjeet Birk, executive director of CASA. “Oftentimes when opportunities are available, they’re limited in scope,” she said, noting that arts, humanities and social sciences students tend to have fewer opportunities than STEM students, and that there is much less discussion around placements for graduate students.

Among all respondents in the CUSC survey, earnings from work-integrated experiences accounted for the largest amount of financing for their education ($10,561), ahead of government loans and bursaries ($8,302) and family sources ($7,131). (See Table 2; hover over for numbers.)

Student satisfaction

Generally, students report being satisfied with their university experience, with eight in 10 saying they were satisfied with the overall quality of education, that they “feel as if they belong to the university” and that university support staff are helpful. For those who have arranged employment after graduation (34 percent), more than eight in 10 say they are satisfied with it. However, some students have reported issues with their postsecondary education, with 37 percent having delayed completing their program, 21 percent who have interrupted their studies for at least one term and 17 percent of students who have transferred from another university.

While students report high levels of satisfaction with a variety of on-campus services, only about 14 percent of total survey respondents said they had used either their university’s employment or career counselling services (see Table 3; hover over for numbers). “These are students who should be entering the workforce in the next two to three months, because 90 percent either have employment arranged or are looking for work,” Mr. Hall said. “It does strike me as strange and this has been a perennial issue. If you look at the satisfaction of the students using it, it’s roughly 80 percent who are satisfied or very satisfied. But the number of students actually using the employment services on campus is very low.”

Almost all graduating students have taken at least one step in preparation for employment or a career after graduation, but these steps are for the most part informal, including talking with friends (79 percent), parents (77 percent), or professors (49 percent) about career options.

Future goals

A sizeable proportion of students – 69 percent – expected to enroll in further education within the next five years. 37 percent of graduating students said they expect to apply to graduate school, while 21 percent expected to apply to a professional school after graduating. Debt was a consideration for some, with four in 10 students saying it affected their decision around further schooling.

“There is a lot of conversation and understanding that going into graduate school is a natural step for a lot of students, especially those in the arts, social sciences and humanities. Part of that is I think directly related to this gap in work-integrated learning opportunities for those students,” said Ms. Birk.

In terms of debt, the CUSC data show roughly half of students graduate with none, while 32 percent graduate with a debt of more than $20,000. “There’s clearly a bifurcation happening,” Mr. Hall said. “Generally speaking, students are either going through university and coming out debt-free or taking on a large debt burden to do that. That said, the average amount of debt students take on has not significantly increased year over year, and that’s controlling for inflation. It’s pretty much flat.”

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