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Higher Education
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Developing work-ready graduates

ACER is conducting a detailed survey of the work integrated learning landscape in Australian university science and ICT faculties.

The Office of Chief Scientist and the Australian Department of Industry have engaged ACER to conduct a study of work integrated learning in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in Australian universities.

STEM skills and STEM graduates contribute significantly to the Australian economy. As demonstrated through an ABS study for the Office of Chief Scientist, STEM related occupations grew at one and a half times the rate of other occupations between 2006 and 2011. As Australia increasingly develops into a knowledge-based economy, the contribution of the scientific workforce towards this end becomes increasingly prominent.

‘Work integrated learning’ refers to a range of activities or programs that integrate academic learning with its application in the workplace. The practice may occur in the workplace, at the university, online or face-to-face, and can include paid or volunteer student placements in industry, industry based projects and simulated work experiences. Often work integrated learning activities are built into university courses and attract study credit for students. In other cases work integrated learning may be optional and not attract credit, or may be purely driven by the initiative of students rather than required by the university as part of a course.

Research shows that work integrated learning is not only important for developing graduate attributes that are appealing to employers and equip graduates with skills for the workforce, but also helps engage students while at university. The Australasian Survey of Student Engagement (AUSSE) has shown that students involved in work integrated learning are less likely to consider dropping out of university than those who are not involved in work integrated learning.

Discussing the study, project director and ACER Principal Research Fellow, Dr Daniel Edwards said, ‘Teaching in STEM related fields must be sufficiently robust, relevant and appealing not only to attract and retain high calibre students, but also to prepare these students as best as possible for a career in the scientific workforce.’

‘Work integrated learning is increasingly recognised as an important tool in developing high quality and work-ready graduates,’ Dr Edwards said. ‘However, the extent to which work integrated learning is practiced within Australian universities, the costs associated with work integrated learning and the effectiveness of work integrated learning in the eyes of employers is not especially well known – particularly at the national level.’

Dr Edwards explains that work integrated learning varies in Australia. The 2009 AUSSE report found that students in natural and physical sciences were least likely to have been involved in work integrated learning. The engineering discipline, on the other hand, is, according to Dr Edwards, one of the leaders in work integrated learning, significantly ahead of the rest of the STEM disciplines. Given this, engineering is not investigated in this project to the same extent as the other STEM disciplines.

The study will focus on the science, information technology, mathematics and agricultural science fields. It will describe the level and type of both credit and non-credit work integrated learning in universities. Background research into existing and previous work in this area within engineering will also be undertaken in order to cover the full spectrum of STEM offerings in Australian universities.

The study aims to contribute significant new knowledge with the goal of enhancing collaboration between education institutions and industry in the preparation of university students for the wider workforce. Information will be collected by interview, survey instruments, consultation with stakeholders and literature reviews.

ACER’s study will run alongside a parallel project exploring the perspectives of employers in relation to work integrated learning. Together, the studies will offer the Office of Chief Scientist a unique and more complete picture of work integrated learning practices in STEM.

The study is due for completion in early 2015. â– 

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