Jan 21, 2013

Co-operative education: a new kind of degree

Commentary

Yuqing Song

Co-operative education: a new kind of degree
Yuqing Song

October 1957 marked the start of the first co-op (cooperative education program) in Canada. The program started amongst 74 Waterloo engineering students and has since become a trend for university learning. Co-op programs are incorporated into compatible majors, such as architecture and engineering, to give students work experience, thereby making them more competitive.

Take the world renowned progressive architecture program at Waterloo as an example: it alternates between classroom learning and co-op placements, accumulating one year of work experience throughout five years of schooling. The idea is that employers will prefer a graduate out of this program over another, because the employee requires virtually no further training.

And it works. Student employment rates out of these programs range between 86-99 per cent each year, which is more than any other university program yields. Even graduates who fail to find suitable employment immediately upon graduation have the opportunity to take an extra work term to gain more leverage.

It’s no secret that a university degree isn’t what it used to be. Universities are increasingly run as businesses, and are no longer the centres for reason and truth that they once were. This isn’t to say that these virtues are not sought after in institutions of higher learning anymore, but rather that there has been a change in how the public perceives a bachelor’s degree.

A new perception to of bachelor’s degrees has altered the purpose of pursuing one. An overwhelming number of students complete a bachelor’s degree simply as a step towards employment. The popularity of co-op programs is evidence of such a change. Traditionally, universities and similar institutions were primarily attended by members of the elite, who did not necessarily need to rely on a regular income after graduation. After all, a profession in which the primary task is “to think” is a privileged one, and has not always been profitable. In recent decades, school has become more affordable with the existence of trust funds, scholarships, student loans, government bursaries, social benefits, and school policies which pledge that “no qualified student [be] denied access to [university] for financial reasons.”

However, when students finish their education, these additional sources of money are subesquently withdrawn, and those who received student loans are left in debt. Income is desperately required after graduation. Thus, a school that can guarantee jobs to its alumni would attract more, and better applicants.

What would give students a better chance at getting jobs? The answer to this question used to revolve around the prestige of the school, connections, and personal ability. While these factors remain true, one more qualification is being added to that list: experience. It seems unreasonable to ask a new graduate to also be experienced, but in economically difficult times like these, with the number of jobs lost (whether to machines or to budgetary constraints) and the number of graduates each year both on the rise, students are forced to push themselves. And if institutions want to stay competitive, they must embrace change.

The influence of having a program that leads directly to employment can be profound and long lasting, as progressive program graduates build up the prestige of their alma mater through their success. Thus, a continuous circle of excelling alumni attracting better applicants will lead schools on a path to surpass standard institutions that choose not to adopt innovative approaches to education. In the institution’s view, there is little reason not to develop a program that matches students’ needs. Considering the long-term benefits, the fact that co-op programs charge higher tuition is just a bonus for the university.

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