At a panel discussion held at George Brown College Chef School on July 25, the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, MP Navdeep Bains, delivered the details of the government’s plan to invest $17 million toward the Business/Higher Education Roundtable (BHER). With the investment, the intention of which was to support experiential learning in universities, the Government of Canada has ensured that by 2029 “every young Canadian who wants a work-integrated learning opportunity can get one.”

Experiential learning, or work-integrated learning (WIL), such as co-op programs, internships, work-study programs, study abroad programs, or work placements, can be instrumental in helping students decide on future career paths. Providing students with a strong understanding of life in the workforce is imperative, which is why U of T must make a greater effort to provide its students with better WIL opportunities.

WIL focuses on helping students develop and acquire practical skills and work experience in their field before graduation. Helping students find a job in their field of study after graduation is essential.
U of T President Meric Gertler also spoke after the panel discussion, insisting that it is essential for U of T to expand its experiential learning opportunities, stating “we hear this every day from our students… they want this.”

U of T currently offers a variety of WIL opportunities for students. However, a closer look at these program offerings reveals that they may not be as equally accessible for everyone as one may hope.

Vicky Vo is a fourth-year student studying at UTSC who has taken both a co-op at UTSC and a work-study at UTSG as part of her degree in Neuroscience, French, and Biology. According to students like Vo, when it comes to gaining the right kind of hands-on experience for a future career, co-op is a better option for WIL than work-study.

“The co-op program at UTSC is the ultimate feature that made me choose the Scarborough campus over the St. George one, despite it being three times the commute time,” wrote Vo. “The biggest difference with my co-op experience was that I was not only able to gain new experience in a new field and work on my skills, I was also able to expand on my role, do many different tasks, and hold many different responsibilities.”

UTSG incorporates WIL in the form of internships, first-year programs, and work-study programs, which are offered to all students. However, UTSG has a limited amount of co-op opportunities, which means that students who attend UTSG are bereft of WIL opportunities that give additional “real life” work experience.

“Work-study is a good program, but I feel that it doesn’t give the intense experience of working outside the university,” wrote Oliver Phan, a fourth-year student studying computer science at UTSG. Phan took a work-study job over the summer. “I definitely think expanding co-op programs at UTSG would benefit students.

Getting caught up in only your studies is too easy at this campus (in any program) and I see it happen to a lot of my peers.”

Unfortunately, the majority of WIL opportunities at UTSG that offer students an “intense” off-campus, paid work experience, such as co-ops, are focused towards students in STEM programs. Students in the humanities or social sciences are offered opportunities to do work-study, internships, and other first-year programs to get a sense of what working in their field looks like. Most of these experiences are unpaid.

According to reports done over the past year by the Conference Board of Canada, students in the humanities are in the greatest need for WIL programs that teach students to apply their skills in a real work environment. It is becoming increasingly difficult for humanities students to find anything higher than an entry-level job after graduation.

However, the difficulty with co-op programs is the cost, which may deter many students from applying. Domestic students at UTSC taking co-op pay an additional $461 to $572 per semester if they apply in first year. Second-year applicants pay a higher price, and international students pay even more, up to $1,012 per semester.

The fees pay for classes, networking events, and job monitoring. Despite this, there are still students that end up with low-paying jobs, and therefore do not receive as much monetary return.

“It is a tedious cost, as the co-op courses that prepare you for your work term don’t really equate to that cost, when comparing to the quality of education you get for subject courses. It only kind of pays off when you’re actually working and you make money, but each job pays differently,” wrote Vo.

Another form of experiential learning that can be expanded upon is the Professional Experience Year (PEY), administered by the Engineering Career Centre at UTSG. PEY offers Engineering and Computer Science students the opportunity to experience 12 to 16 months of paid full-time work in their area of study after their second or third year.

One benefit of the program is that students don’t have to switch between study and work during the semester — a drawback of work-study — and the payback for the $975 tuition fee is comparably higher. Students in PEY in the 2018–2019 year earned an average of $49,308.42.

Another attribute of PEY is the range of locations in which jobs are offered, from Alberta to Belgium. This decreases competitiveness and expands job opportunities, which was highlighted in the BHER meeting as an essential mandate moving forward.

The PEY program has already expanded to include computer science students, showing promising results. Perhaps if the PEY program collaborated with other employers outside of STEM disciplines, U of T could offer all students the type of WIL they’ve been asking for.

In the modern, fast-paced technological age, students find WIL to be an increasingly crucial part of their university degree. But improving WIL is not just a matter of ensuring that every student gets access to a WIL opportunity. Effective WIL means that opportunities on every level of experience — in-class, research, off-campus, and commission-based — are integrated into a student’s learning experience, in a cost-effective, efficient manner, no matter the field of study.

In a world that is also rapidly expanding, across every discipline, it is essential that any student can access the tools that will help them contribute to the workforce, before real-life opportunities pass by.

Toryanse Blanchard is a second-year English, Environmental Biology, and Book and Media Studies student at New College.