Work-integrated Learning (WIL) is a form of learning where periods of study are alternated with phases of related work in business, industry or government agencies. In this way students are given the opportunity to effectively integrate the theory of the classroom with the practice and the responsibility of the workplace.
According to educational and industrial experts WIL is a powerful vehicle for scheduling and designing educational programmes so that students receive built-in, on-the-job experience relating to their studies. Currently, various forms of work-integrated learning are utilized by educators in their institutions in various countries across the world.
It is to be expected that in a developing society where economic growth is high, the need for a high quality workforce is vital. A quality workforce is one in which the workers are responsive to local as well as international forces. This is especially so when trading among nations of the world become increasingly liberalised.
This is where learning programmes such as work-integrated learning can be of immense value in inculcating such habits in our future graduates.
In an effort to increase appreciation of connection between academic material and workplace, the Polytechnic of Namibia (PoN) has adopted a compulsory work integrated learning component through its Centre for Cooperative Education (CCE) for educational programs. The CCE is pursuing a comprehensive agenda to embed WIL as an important component of all Bachelor’s Degree courses at the PoN.
According to the director of CCE, Carva Pop, this component is an opportunity for the students to apply classroom theory in a real world environment and in the end improve their employability.
Pop says this movement is fuelled by the fact that Namibia, as most developing countries, is inundated with complaints that products of higher education output are failing to meet industry input requirements.
“The industry keeps saying there is a skills shortage, these graduates are not ready for work, so CCE was started in order to address that specific need,” he says.
The CCE was officially launched in March 2011 and it aims to bridge the student from a student culture into a business or corporate culture by improving the student’s ability to add economic value to the employer quickly.
At the core of CCE is the development of cooperation between the PoN, industry, commerce, the public sector and communities to enhance learning, which includes work-based and service learning, liaison with industry, partnerships, research, development, and the formation of advisory committees.
This, therefore, forms an integral part of the curriculum development and implementation along with informing the teaching and learning strategy of PoN.
“We partner with Government ministries, town councils and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in terms of placements of students with them to bridge the gap between the classroom and the real world,” he says.
The curriculum content from the first year onwards is informed by the process of consultation with the partners.
“The theory we teach comes from the advisory board which is made up of the industry, then the final assessment in the workplace environment is something that we do in conjunction with the workplace environment,” Pop says.
He added that this strategic move has indeed improved the employability of students judging on the feedback from employers and students who would have gone through the internship placement purposes. However, a full study will be conducted to determine the exact statistics, thoughts and inputs.
Pop also says more should be done to strengthen out feedback loops with the industry.
“We need to create greater channels to get clear feedback from industry,” he says.
Even after the implementation of the internship programme, students were still experiencing lack of soft skills, such as presentation skills, conflict resolutions skills, communication skills, business etiquette, corporate culture and dress code.
To tackle the issue, CCE has undertaken compulsory workshops for the students before they go out into the work environment.
Although this is seen as the right direction in building the kind of practical competencies that the industry needs, cooperative education may not be the answer to closing the experience gap as many positions still require people to have been working for a number of years.
However, he said industry has noticed that there are a few people with experience and is starting to sign up for this drive that institutions of higher learning are putting in place and create the opportunity to interview the student for up to six months while they are still in the workplace.
“So from the business environment it makes absolute sense to invest in cooperative education, because this allows the company to actually build pipeline skills, to start seriously thinking about succession planning and also look at talent management internally to identify critical skills in their business,” he says.
Pop further says engaging in cooperative education also allows organisations to start proactively managing their workforce development.
He, however, says there is a disconnection between education and work environment in mapping where the industry needs lie and where the students are and there is no national system that integrates the two.
“We have gone quite a way in terms of maturing that relationship of involving industry but it can be improved on,” he says.
In that regard PoN together with the International University of Management (IUM) and the University of Namibia (Unam) will be driving a study for their graduates. Pop says he envisions a lot of national benefits to be derived from the study.
“The kind of activities that we run through the cooperative education seeks to correct the misconception that students are not ready to add value,” says Pop.
He further commends the companies that have engaged in partnership with the CCE. To this end Adforce, Hangana Seafood and Telecom Namibia are among the companies which have taken up projects with the CCE.
The Ongwediva Town Council is also using this exercise as a pipeline development for service delivery in their particular town.
Pop noted that leading banks are still hesitant to engage the CCEs formal process.
He says it is advisable for business to get involved if they want to grow their business.
“Because the more economically active people are, the more potential they are of using business products and services,” he explains.
When he gets an opportunity to engage with an executive Pop often tries to convince them that there is much more reasons to get involved. However, he admits that a paradigm shift is required to understand that they are not going to do business the way they have always been doing it.
According to Pop, businesses need to have a formalised mentorship scheme in place to allow a smooth transfer of skills.
“I go out and actively urge companies to give us their problems, so when students go out and do research we do it on actual companies’ problems,” he stresses.
Pop, who once worked at Business Connection as the group manager for human resources training and development, has had the opportunity to run an internship scheme of about 595 students in one company across six countries.
Through partnerships with universities, he identified the gap and when an opportunity came about to establish the centre, he grabbed it with both hands.
Pop further stresses that the labour law in the country does not make specific allowance for students in the workplace. He says it is, therefore, difficult to deal with the aspects of aspects of growing the skills competency and resources in the country.
He said a National working group was established by the late Minister of Education, Abraham Iyambo. Pop is the deputy chairperson of the working group which is trying to come up with a national strategy and policy for cooperative education in the country.
Last year, the group hosted the World Association for Cooperative Education.
“Being involved at regional and international levels on the practices and principles of cooperative education means that we have access to some best practice and research.”
He adds, “It also means that we are able to influence best practice and research because we don’t only have to be recipients, new knowledge has been generated in this field in Namibia on a daily basis.”
He concludes saying as long as there are companies that do not know what the CCE does, their work is not done.
“We need to get the word out there a lot more eloquently in various mediums, we need to be speaking to a cross sector of the economy and we need to do a lot more to promote industries’ involvement in education and the creation of opportunities of internships,” he says. PF