At the University of Victoria Gustavson School of Business, business students have the opportunity to gain valuable work experience, exploring how their education is connected to various industries and businesses that interest them, before they graduate. Students do this through participation in the University of Victoria Co-operative Education Program (Co-op) where they must complete 3 four-month work terms. The Co-op Program offers students the opportunity to try out different jobs, build competencies, and earn income—and possibly a job after graduation. I spoke with Leslie Liggett, Manager of the Business Co-op and Career Centre at the University of Victoria about this programme.
Briefly describe the co-op programme
The Canadian Association for Co-operative Education (CAFCE) defines it as a “Co-operative Education Program,” which means the programme alternates periods of academic study with periods of work experience in appropriate fields of business, industry, government, social services, and the professions. The focus is to ensure that students are given productive work that is supervised and evaluated. Additionally, it is structured so that time spent in periods of work experience is at least thirty per cent of the time spent in academic study.
The key points are that the work is linked to the academic discipline, full-time paid, and assessed. The University of Victoria’s Co-op Programs are accredited by the CAFCE.
How did the Co-op Program at University of Victoria (UVic) come about?
In the mid 1970s, science programmes at UVic realised that science students could benefit from practical experience in industry as part of their education. Faculty thought that students’ learning could be enriched by applying what they learned as they progressed in their degree programmes, and reflecting on their experiences as they moved through their education. Over time, the programme spread to other disciplines. Now, every undergraduate programme at UVic offers Co-op unless they already require practica or other applications of their learning. Now UVic has the third largest co-op programme in Canada.
In Business and Engineering, Co-op is mandatory. Every BCom student completes 3 four-month work terms, and MBA’s complete one or two, unless they are exempt because they already have enough industry experience.
Why have it?
Benefits accrue to all three parties involved:
- Students apply their education to see how it works in practice, and think critically about how what they are being taught is actually implemented; try several types of work to help them choose a direction for their career; earn money to finance their education; build professional networks before they graduate; graduate work-ready; and find work sooner and get paid more than non-co-op graduates.
- Employers get access to the most current theories and practices; have a chance to hire in a low-risk way (4 months at a time) so they can find candidates that best match their business; gain access to potential future employees even before they graduate; and receive fresh ideas and intelligent questions to help them improve their business.
- Gustavson School of Business accessess potential Corporate Partners, mentors, donors, and guest instructors who are familiar with our programme; develops engaged students who think critically and ask probing questions in the classroom; and gets better career outcomes for grads, and externally-validated data on student outcomes.
How does it work in practice?
Co-op Coordinators talk to companies, help them identify any needs that could best be met by hiring a co-op student, and help them create job postings to recruit students. Students can apply to the positions we post, or find work through their own networks or other means. Positions qualify as Co-op if they help students develop their core and business-related competencies, include a minimum of 12 weeks of full time employment, and are paid.
University of Victoria was the first Canadian university to develop a competency assessment system that links classroom curriculum with work-term learning. Once students are hired, they meet with their supervisor to define their learning goals. They then review the list of Core and Business Specific Competencies, and choose 3-5 that are relevant to their work. Students then assess where they are on the competency development scale. At the mid-term, students assess themselves again on the same competencies, and their supervisor reviews their assessment and does one of their own. There is then a scheduled meeting with the supervisor, student, and Co-op Coordinator to ensure that the student’s learning is facilitated and meeting the employer’s expectations. The final assessment of competencies happens at the end of the 4-month term, thus allowing the student to measure their learning and development. Students also reflect on their learning by submitting a reflective piece of work for review by their Coordinator in preparation for their return to campus.
What are some examples of the co-op placements?
We are finding that more and more of our students are exploring sustainability related co-op placements or working on sustainability projects within their jobs. One of our students who wanted experience in the tourism industry did her Co-op work term as a Guest Service Agent at Ziptrek Ecotours in Whistler, BC. Ziptrek offers tours to educate guests about the rare temperate coastal rainforest of Whistler while providing an adrenaline-pumping experience as guests soar hundreds of feet above the forest floor on zip lines. Another student worked as a Research Assistant putting together a business plan for a commercial greenhouse business with a local non-profit organisation.
Students love that the programme gives them a chance to get out of the classroom and get first-hand experience of the issues and industries they hope to work with post-graduation.
What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?
There is a Canadian and Associations for Co-operative Education (CAFCE) and a World Association for Co-operative Education (WACE) that are both great starting points! Their conferences offer a wealth of opportunities to learn from others. Additionally, these associations provide resources for programme assessment, which would be helpful is setting a framework for such a programme. Overall, my advice is to secure faculty support, and then do it.
What are the next steps for the programme?
Our next steps are to continue to seek opportunities that are relevant to students’ education, interests, and passion. We are also trying to tap into larger and more international companies, where our students can start to have a bigger impact.