Western is joining a national consortium of business, university, college and polytechnic partners to create more work experience opportunities for young Canadians, boost innovation, and drive collaboration.
The Business + Higher Education Roundtable (BHER) was established in 2015 to bring together Canada’s business and postsecondary education sectors to build opportunities for young Canadians and boost innovation.
Today, the non-profit group includes several of Canada’s leading universities and colleges and has a target for every postsecondary student in the country to have access to some form of Work-Integrated Learning (WIL).
“Students have been profoundly impacted by the loss of job opportunities and work-integrated learning placements throughout this pandemic,” said Western alumnus Dave McKay, MBA’92, LLD’19, President and CEO of RBC, and Chair of BHER. “In response, we have an historic opportunity in front of us to take a more progressive approach to lifelong learning and keep reinventing our higher-education system – better linking workplaces and classrooms. As we transform the way work gets done, I firmly believe experiential learning programs will play an absolutely essential role in preparing our youth for the future.
“We’re thrilled Western is joining us in our nation-wide mission to ensure that higher education students have equitable access to the skills training and experiences needed in the post-pandemic economy.”
Western News interviewed Western president Alan Shepard — who will serve as the university’s representative on BHER — to get his take on how our involvement in the national consortium will benefit students and the Canadian economy.
Western News: You’ve said many times that academia and industry need to build stronger relationships. Why is this crucial, and why now?
Alan Shepard: It’s all about offering the best preparation for, and careers in, the knowledge economy. Western has to be front and centre in this work, and we need to engage in ways that we haven’t always been. The Roundtable provides Western with a ready-made platform to collaborate with major institutional partners across the country that share the same goal.
WN: Work-integrated learning in engineering, health, medicine is fairly easy to understand. But how does that translate to things like liberal arts?
Shepard: No matter what students are studying, they will benefit from work-integrated learning experiences. That’s at least as true in the liberal arts and humanities as it is in other subjects and professional disciplines that we may traditionally think of when we think of work-integrated learning. I’ve long been an advocate of ensuring students from all disciplines who want to have this kind of experience have the opportunity to do so.
WN: A recent tweet about CityStudio London [which offers problem-solving projects between local community partners and Western students, faculty and staff] reminded me just how rich that experience can be across disciplines.
Shepard: Absolutely. Interdisciplinary teams often produce super results. You bring people together who don’t ordinarily talk to each other and suddenly you’re bringing different perspectives to bear on a problem. That’s very powerful. More diverse thinking is likely to lead to more effective, multi-dimensional solutions.
WN: So how well is Western doing with that, and how are Canadian postsecondary institutions doing in general?
Shepard: Across the country we’re learning more and more from each other, which is good. Sharing best practices between institutions and across the public and private sectors is what the roundtable is designed to do. At Western, there are some areas where we’ve embraced work-integrated learning exceptionally well. Engineering, for example, has really been at the forefront. And there are other areas where we’re playing catch-up and really need to be doing more.
WN: What are some challenges Western faces in this area?
Shepard: It takes significant resources to place thousands of students into work-integrated learning experiences every year and maintain partnerships with the businesses and NGO’s where you’re placing them. And then, as companies change and as people move around, whatever you had coordinated last year may not work this year. So, in addition to resources, logistics can be challenging, especially with large, complex organizations that we’re often dealing with. We need the resources internally to make sure we have all the people and all the tools we need to create placements, and to make them stick and make them positive experiences.
WN: So how do institutions, businesses and governments put all those moving parts together to make this happen?
Shepard: That’s where BHER comes into play by helping us learn from best practices, identify human capital challenges, create more learning opportunities for students aligned with those challenges, and to help explain to the public and funding organizations how our teaching and research delivers high value to the economy.
WN: How will you know if that’s a success, if it’s working?
Shepard: We can measure success in different ways, first by listening to our students and our alumni. Sometimes you’re five years out of university before you realize, ‘that experience, now that I’ve thought it through, turns out to have been really valuable to me.’ Sometimes it takes a bit of time for the experience to ripen and deepen for people to understand how profound it was to have had the opportunity to practise what they’re learning in the marketplace of ideas in the big world.
Hearing from the employers who hire our students, who provide them with these experiences, is also important.
There’s a growing volume of research on the larger impact of work-integrated learning programs. Trying to use that research to understand what the benefits are, and where we can improve, is a good idea.
WN: The next few months, as this grows, will be exciting.
Shepard: Historically, the closer you got to being hands-on, the less interested higher education had been in that experience. We’re moving to a model where there’s more of an integration between brain and hands. To note one important example of how that model is evolving here, we’re planning a new entrepreneurship building on campus, and ‘maker spaces’ are one of its central features. There will be tools and technology, places where you can develop your ideas and practise your skills. If you want to make a prototype of some device you’re designing, you’re going to be able to make it on campus. Fifty years ago, even 25, that would not have happened unless you were in an engineering lab. Over all, we’re really looking at a big shift in higher education here.