Work Integrated learning (WIL) students are seeking greater levels of support from universities to reflect the personal and financial stresses associated with their participation. Quantitative and qualitative data from surveys and focus groups—including students and administrators—identified the importance of institutional and community support to promote student wellbeing. The insights offered by this report informed recommendations for universities and registration/accreditation bodies to improve WIL student outcomes through the refinement of program policies and practices.
Australian universities are under increasing pressure to support students to develop the graduate skills and knowledge required to transition from education into professional practice. The adoption of a range of Work Integrated Learning (WIL) approaches to achieve this aim represents an increasingly prevalent part of the tertiary education landscape. However, successes in increasing the participation of diverse groups in higher education challenge assumptions regarding students’ extra-study commitments and the potential impacts of these on students’ capacity to participate in WIL activities, particularly unpaid placements. Despite these shifts, there has been limited exploration of student experiences of WIL through a wellbeing lens or with an explicit focus on the equity considerations.
Objectives and methodology
Through the voices and experiences of WIL administrators and participants from the disciplines of health and social services, education and nursing this research identified the personal impacts of participation in WIL, beyond the impacts of professional development and in-situ learning. This research explored personal and other factors influencing students’ experiences of WIL placements and their coping strategies for managing the reciprocal impacts of participation on other commitments.
Data for this study was collected using an online student survey, student focus groups, and staff focus groups. The survey and focus group data was analysed using qualitative and quantitative approaches. The analyses sought to identify the impact that personal and other factors can have on the practicum experience, the impact of the practicum experience on other parts of the student’s life such as paid work commitments and work-study-life conflicts, and the perceived impact of this on their wellbeing.
In connecting WIL and wellbeing, researchers introduced the concept of WIL wellbeing as a construct to identify the impacts of WIL on participants’ wellbeing within and beyond the learning context. Explicitly connecting WIL and wellbeing, and foregrounding the everyday life experiences of WIL participants, the research highlighted the contribution of personal coping strategies (many of which are taken into post-graduation professional practice) to managing a successful WIL experience. In the context of the broad scale adoption of WIL as a learning pedagogy, this research also considered how universities and WIL placement workplaces can better support students in preparation for, and during, their WIL experiences.
Key findings and recommendations
WIL participants experienced considerable levels of financial stress as a result of undertaking a WIL placement due to the intensive unpaid nature of WIL placements; the additional costs incurred as a result of the placement; relational stressors; and the financial impacts of lost wages. Research participants, regardless of their familial or employment circumstances, suggested that additional financial assistance and support was required by many WIL participants to support their participation.
WIL workplaces need better preparation and support to positively contribute to participant wellbeing and learning outcomes. Both WIL administrator and student participants in this research identified the impact of attitudes and behaviours of supervisors, co-workers and clients within the WIL workplace on student wellbeing. They concluded that better training, support and vetting of potential WIL workplaces and supervisors is required.
Greater levels of institutional and community support are required to support WIL participant wellbeing. In addition to more supportive supervisory relationships within the WIL workplace, WIL participants are seeking greater levels of pastoral care, staff support and empathy from universities. Combined, peer, family, community and university support make an important contribution to a successful WIL experience, however, available institutional support and eligibility requirements need to be better communicated to students, particularly those that may not have existing support networks.
Conclusions and considerations for policy
Examining the equity implications of WIL participation, this research revealed new insights about participant experiences and has the potential to inform WIL policies and practices to support student wellbeing.
Acknowledging the potential impact of extra-curricular commitments, such as paid employment and caring responsibilities, and other personal factors on the WIL experience and providing focused support is important for supporting student wellbeing, and increasing the potential for a successful placement. Both WIL administrator and student participants in this research proposed that universities and registration/accreditation bodies need to consider alternatives to unpaid WIL placements or structural changes to placement requirements which limit extended unpaid placements.
WIL wellbeing is determined by personal coping strategies and institutional and community support. It is therefore imperative that all stakeholders involved in managing, administering and promoting universal WIL participation are cognisant of the potential impacts of WIL on participants’ wellbeing.