Amid growing controversy over unpaid student internships and stagnant economic conditions, co-op programs continue to thrive and grow at Canadian universities and colleges. But some people question whether the rapid expansion can continue without compromising the quality of students’ experiences.
“Co-op is definitely growing, and our membership is increasing,” said Christine Arsenault, past president of the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education (CAFCE) and director of management co-op programs at the University of Toronto Scarborough. According to CAFCE, 55 universities, 26 colleges and three institutes offer some 1,100 co-op programs.
While horror stories about exploitative internships have dominated national headlines, CAFCE works to ensure the quality of co-op programs through its national accreditation system, which serves as a measure of quality control for students and employers. For programs to be accredited, the students taking them must be paid, must receive regular feedback from employers, and must alternate between study and work terms. Work terms need to be closely related to students’ academic studies and comprise at least 30 percent of an academic program.
Universities and colleges may choose to offer unaccredited programs, but Ms. Arsenault said the numbers of institutions seeking accreditation from CAFCE is growing. One incentive for doing so is that several provinces provide tax credits to employers who hire co-op students from programs with standards that closely match accreditation requirements, she said.
The University of Waterloo was the first school in Canada to introduce co-op in its engineering program in 1957, the year the school was founded. Co-op studies were originally conceived as a pedagogical tool to enhance the learning experience of students. Peggy Jarvie, U of Waterloo’s executive director of co-operative education and career action, said the popularity of co-op education today is fuelled by the growing attention to learning outcomes and employability of graduates.
U of Waterloo operates the largest co-op program in the world: almost two-thirds of its undergraduate students, about 17,000, are enrolled in more than 140 co-op programs, all CAFCE-accredited. While the university’s undergraduate enrolment grew 38 percent between 2004 and 2013, its co-op enrolment grew 58 percent in the same 10-year period.
U of Waterloo’s student employment rate dipped slightly following the 2008 recession, but since then has held steady at about 96 percent. Even the retrenchment of BlackBerry, a one-time U of Waterloo start-up and major employer in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, hasn’t made a big dent in student placements. “Certainly it’s having a huge impact on the community,” Ms. Jarvie said, but she noted that even at its peak, BlackBerry hired at most 200 students every work term out of about 6,000.
Other fast-growing technology companies in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, including OpenText and Desire2Learn (also U of Waterloo spin-offs) have stepped in to fill the void, she said. In the 2012-13 academic year, U of Waterloo students earned $193 million on their work terms, averaging $11,600 per student.
The University of Victoria, offering 224 co-op programs, has also seen a steady increase in placements since the end of the 2008 recession. Last year, it placed 3,000 students with 1,200 companies and organizations.
“You hear all this worry from industry about how there is this huge skills gap,” said Norah McRae, executive director of UVic’s co-operative education programs and career services. But, she said, businesses should consider co-op programs as a cost-effective way to train and recruit new employees, adding that “universities can’t produce plug-and-play students.”
Applied learning is one of the fastest growing areas for Ontario universities, according to a recent report by the Council of Ontario Universities. The report found that graduates from bachelor programs with co-op experience earn more than their peers, have higher employment rates and are more likely to pay off their debt within two years.
A multi-year study of co-op education and work-integrated learning by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario surveyed students, faculty and employers in 2011 and 2012. Co-op students reported higher levels of satisfaction with their programs, said they had benefitted professionally from the experience and said the experience had helped clarify their career goals. They also graduated with lower debt. The study found that employers offered higher starting salaries on average to graduates with work-integrated learning experiences. Employers also reported using co-op programs to develop workforce skills required in their industry and as a method to prescreen potential hires.
However, more than half of college students and nine percent of university students in the survey reported completing a co-op for which they had not been paid. “That’s counter to almost any definition of co-op,” said Richard Wiggers, HEQCO’s executive director of research and programs. Many students also reported having boring or insufficient work and lacking opportunities to integrate their work experiences with their class work. More than half of faculty members surveyed said that finding enough work placements and good quality placements were major challenges. “There is still a ways to go to ensure that all students have the most meaningful co-op experience possible,” Dr. Wiggers said.
The report warned that a key challenge in coming years will be to ensure that the supply of work opportunities meets growing demand.
U of Waterloo’s Ms. Jarvie said the ability of institutions to find suitable employment for students varies by industry; for example, all of U of Waterloo’s computer software engineers are placed every term. “I think we could have at least twice as many students in that program with no difficulty of getting them employed,” she said.
Co-ops can be unpaid but in order for programs to be CAFCE-accredited, unpaid work terms must be the exception rather than the rule, Ms. Jarvie said. As an example, a U of Waterloo student recently completed a work term with an African non-profit organization for which she was paid room and board but no salary.