OPINION: Transitioning economy? Expand experiential learning
As students, families and universities gear up for a new fall term, the mission to equip next-gen talent to meet the immediate and future needs of society has become doubly urgent given the seismic changes and unprecedented challenges the world is confronting.
Economies everywhere are struggling with inflation, labour shortages and supply-chain disruptions. New technologies are proliferating at breakneck speed. The organization of work is undergoing a decisive transformation. And, globally, strands of the social fabric are rapidly tearing apart.
More than ever we need an adaptable, engaged workforce and citizenry to help us through these transitions and beyond. This is why, beginning this September, Concordia University is offering every incoming undergraduate student at least one course-based experiential learning opportunity. Concordia also aims to make two experiential learning opportunities available to new students beginning in 2025 through work-integrated learning, study-abroad experience, research, community-based or co-curricular experience over the course of their degree.
It’s an ambitious undertaking. But given the partnerships we’ve established and are developing, Concordia intends to be the first university in Quebec, and one of the first in Canada, to deliver on such a tangible goal.
Experiential learning opportunities enhance students’ formation by providing curated access to people, knowledge and networks that complement but go beyond the boundaries of standard degree learning. Through exposure to different cultures, workplaces and performance expectations, students can make a faster, smoother transition to life after a bachelor’s degree.
Undergraduates who do co-op work placements or internships, participate actively in research projects or field schools, or go on academic exchange programs generally perform better academically. And with hands-on experience and a foot in the door, they’re also more likely to be recruited by organizations and employers.
Yet the challenge for universities, especially big ones like Concordia with more than 30,000 undergraduates, is to deliver experiential learning at scale. We’ve run successful co-op and internship programs for more than 40 years. And we’re not alone. Universities that privilege experiential learning understand that employers, large and small, want access to bright, talented students to fill their immediate workforce needs, but also to groom trainees for the future.
Beyond privileged access to a talent pipeline, the overwhelming majority of employers believe that student interns build capacity in their organizations, bringing new ideas, fresh energy, technology skills, digital expertise and, in the case of Concordia, cultural and linguistic diversity.
The best performance indicator for any university is the success of its graduates. The students we send on work placements or to study abroad are our ambassadors. How they perform in the workplace or at host universities elsewhere reflects on the academic training we provide, boosting our reputation for developing citizens with adaptable, applicable real-world skills.
To be successful and sustainable at scale, experiential learning cannot be transactional. It has to be a mutual investment and meaningful partnership that puts benefits to employers, host and home universities on an equal footing with the student experience.
Engaging alumni and advocacy groups such as the Business + Higher Education Roundtable to mobilize their networks and broaden potential employment pools is critical. So is the support of generous donors, such as the Doggone Foundation, who provide paid internships to Concordia students in fine arts, or RBC, who support students from marginalized backgrounds through our Beat the Odds program.
Governments also play a key role. In terms of policy impact, the value proposition of experiential learning more than repays the public investment to incentivize employer participation or offset the cost for universities to arrange placements and provide professional mentoring.
Investing in placements is an effective tool, not just to support businesses and organizations in large urban centres, but also in regions where workforce recruitment is sometimes challenging. And by expanding work-integrated learning eligibility, more talented international students will choose to stay in Quebec or Canada after graduation.
We’re living through a period of extraordinary social and economic upheaval. But working together, across sectors, we can deepen the value of university education and advance the prosperity of Quebec and Canadian society by better aligning the undergraduate experience with global diversity, the changing world of work today and the economies of tomorrow. Investing in experiential learning is a cost-effective way to enrich all our futures.
This op-ed was previously published in The Gazette and La Presse.
Find out more about experiential learning at Concordia.