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Pandemic exacerbating work-based education options in Australia

The International Education Association of Australia has published best practice principles to prepare international students for “success in a dynamic and competitive graduate labour market”, however there are concerns that the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating access to work integrated learning in the country.

work integrated learningWork placements can be costly and challenging to coordinate, but they can also provide a strong return on investment for employers and governments, and better employment outcomes for students, NCVER said. Photo: Unsplash

VET students represented around 33% of international students enrolled on courses in Australia in September, 2020

“Challenges facing international VET students… are exacerbated by Covid-19”

Students completing vocational education and training in Australia will benefit from work-based education, as will employers – who will see productivity gains in the form of job-ready workers – according to the National Centre for Vocational Education Research.

Compiling a review of existing research, NCVER said that work-based education can boost employment outcomes for vocational education and training students, as well as offer smoother transitions into ongoing employment and the chance to develop broad occupational skills.

For training providers, work-based education will provide a positive reputation, better relationships with employers, more motivated students, and better student outcomes, the organisation noted.

“Research has shown that communication gaps between employers, training providers and students can have a big impact on the outcomes of work-based education programs, so teamwork is key to ensuring their success,” said NCVER managing director, Simon Walker.

However, NCVER urged employers to invest in training for workplace mentors, provide appropriately challenging work to VET students and investigate how work-based education programs operate in other organisations.

Both policy-makers and employers ought to collaborate to create environments more conducive to learning, while legislators should set quality standards and “incentivise effective work-based education programs”.

Student data for September 2020 found that VET students represented around 33% of international students enrolled on courses in Australia. The 276,551 international VET students was an increase of 12% on 2019 figures.

International VET students value work placements as a means of gaining cultural experience and view the opportunities as providing a competitive advantage in the labour market, NCVER reminded.

“Challenges facing international VET students outlined in our research on work integrated learning for international students in the VET sector are exacerbated by Covid-19,” Ly Tran, professor and ARC future fellow at Deakin University’s Faculty of Arts and Education told The PIE News.

“These hindrances for work experience arrangements for international VET students include employers’ reluctance in taking international students into their workplaces because of prejudice about the non-permanent or temporary status of their visa, misperceptions or concerns over these students’ unfamiliarity with the Australian workplace culture and their English proficiency, a lack of recognition of these students’ potential contributions to their organisations, and lack of understanding about the international student visa conditions, complicated by Covid-19,” she noted.

At a larger scale, the pandemic has also impacted work placements, internships and practicum, course-related volunteer activities, project-based learning, and service learning.

The exclusion of international students from the government’s JobKeeper subsidy aiming to support both employees and organisations “likely leads to employers’ further hesitation and refusal to offer international students paid work integrated learning and to recruit them”, Tran added.

“Employers and organisations that legitimately employ international students and temporary workers are also disadvantaged through this exclusion.”

Additionally, the recent IEAA report noted that Covid-19 will “bring a more challenging employment landscape, with the need for innovation, creativity, and growth mindsets even more necessary”.

Among its recommendations, it suggested institutions treat international graduate employability as “core business”, ensure arriving students have realistic employment expectations, partner with employers to improve international student employability, provide work integrated learning opportunities and leverage alumni networks.

The IEAA also urged institutions to prepare international students for the transition into the home country labour market – a 2017 report found that international graduates of Australian universities earn higher salaries back home.

“Employability has been a key priority for Australian government, with local, state and Commonwealth agencies developing strategies and investing heavily in enhancing employment outcomes for international students,” IEAA chief executive Phil Honeywood said in a statement.

“As the world continues to evolve – notwithstanding the acceleration of change spiked by Covid-19 this year – it is more crucial than ever that international students are work-ready upon graduation.”

“International students may need assistance recognising the need to engage in a range of experiences to develop capabilities in high demand by industry,” added the IEAA report authors Aleksandr Voninski and Dino Willox.

Tran also highlighted that virtual international experiences have replaced physical work integrated learning and job competition has intensified during the pandemic.

“It is critical to provide students with explicit guidance”

Virtual work integrated learning programs “could potentially offer inclusive learning opportunities for international students”, but it would depend on “how agile and capable universities have moved in delivering” such programs during and post Covid-19″, she noted.

“It is critical to provide students with explicit guidance and training about relating their virtual international work integrated learning and experiences to their job applications, employers’ expectations and future employment,” she said.

“It’s important for institutions and stakeholders concerned about international student employability to work more closely with employers to raise their awareness of international students’ potential strengths and contributions to their organisation and Australian society. Importantly, existing prejudices towards international students need to be tackled at a more systematic level.”

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