22 July 2009

Cooperative education – benefitting students and employers

By Dr Ling Tong Wei

(Published in’Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

When students graduate from university, they are expected to be job-ready, possessing the relevant generic attributes and professional skills required by industry. It is therefore not only imperative that the students understand the theories and concepts learned at university but must be able to apply them in practice.

To this end, a university may implement a number of programs to ensure that its graduates fulfill the needs of industry. Of these, one that is of notable importance is cooperative education. Cooperative education, which involves placing undergraduate students in industry for vocational training, creates a real-life work situation for the students to apply the skills and knowledge learned. At the same time, they also gain first-hand knowledge about how the industry works. In short, cooperative educative gives students a taste of the real thing.

In engineering, practical experience is important as graduates may sometimes be involved in projects with some risks to human life. It is a requirement by the Board of Engineers Malaysia and Engineers Australia that all engineering students who are enrolled into accredited courses have to acquire a minimum of 12 weeks first-hand relevant experience in an engineering-practice environment, outside the university.

Compulsory for all engineering students, it is referred to as industrial placement although it may also be termed as internship, industrial training or industrial attachment. It involves practical experience in an engineering environment outside the teaching establishment, classes and activities on professional ethics and conduct, industry visits and inspections, industry-based projects, industry research for feasibility studies and study of industry policies, processes, practices and benchmarks.

The placement normally takes place during the longest semester break, normally from May to July at most public universities. At Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus this often occurs from December to February each year.

The number of students undertaking industrial placement is increasing significantly annually. At Swinburne Sarawak, for example, about 60 engineering students from various disciplines took up industrial placements in 2008. This year, the number is estimated to be about 100 engineering students, and this may increase to 150 next year. To ensure that the same high quality of the industrial placement is sustained, more organizations from industry are needed to offer places for training.

While helping to prepare students for their careers, it also benefits employers as it allows them the opportunity to assess if the students are suitable for employment after graduation. Moreover, as employers also appraise students on attachment, they are able to provide feedback to the university on the skills the industry needs.

Alternatively, a program with a longer placement period is now available at some universities. Swinburne Sarawak, for example, offers engineering undergraduate students the option to undertake its industrial-based learning (IBL) programme for periods ranging from six to 12 months. IBL, pioneered by its home campus in Australia in the 1960s, offers students the opportunity to undertake a full time paid placement in industries in an area relevant to their studies.

Unlike industrial placement, IBL is not compulsory. Although going for IBL will mean that they will graduate later, it allows students to get involved in engineering projects and learn more than a three-month industrial placement. Moreover, a supervisor from the university is assigned to each student for support throughout the placement. Both the academic and industrial supervisors assess the students and are in constant contact. When the students graduate, they will be awarded an additional certificate to endorse the practical training, making it highly valuable.  

So, basically, IBL offers a real job, real experience, real learning and remuneration to students.

From this program, the students:

  • gain valuable workplace experience relevant to their field of study
  • develop career opportunities and explore career options
  • apply the theories learned to real work situations
  • develop practical workplace skills
  • earn while they learn
  • gain valuable insight into how organisations operate
  • make valuable contacts within the industry

As mentioned earlier, students undertaking IBL are also paid by the employer and the wage is normally higher than that for students who are on industrial placement. However, the programme also works well for the employer in that the organisation:

  • completes tasks in a cost-effective way
  • has access to enthusiastic and skilled undergraduates
  • has the opportunity to evaluate potential employees
  • contributes to the training of emerging professionals
With the Sarawak Corridor for Renewable Energy (SCORE) project taking shape, the demand for engineers and technicians is estimated at 82,000 by 2030. Through cooperative education, universities are able to collaborate with industries in producing engineers who are job-ready. Cooperative education such as those mentioned here will help upcoming engineers to perform effectively and also contribute to their employer after the completion of their training.

Dr Ling Tong Wei is a lecturer with the School of Engineering and Science at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at twling@swinburne.edu.my.