York University’s Lassonde Engineering School has launched its first digital technologies work-integrated degree program. Over the course of four years, students will be fully employed by the same employer, earning a salary while studying towards a bachelor of applied science degree. The Fall 2023 cohort of 17 students enrolled in the pilot program will spend approximately 80 per cent of their work hours on the job, with 20 per cent dedicated to academic study delivered during five-day block periods every five to seven weeks.
The program was designed in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University, which has thousands of students completing a similar work-integrated learning model that has been successfully adopted throughout the U.K. One of the model’s advantages is how it can increase access to education for a wider spectrum of students such as first-generation students, students from equity-deserving groups and lifelong learners, according to Richard Hornsey, York’s associate dean academic and students. “[Lassonde is] starting to look at less traditional learners who may face financial barriers to university,” he said. Manchester Met initially launched the model in 2015 and, according to its 2021 impact report, 40 per cent of its 2,300 learners during that time were the first in their family to attend university while nearly 20 per cent came from “disadvantaged communities, including Black, Asian and minority ethnic learners.”
While York’s first cohort consists of a significantly smaller sample size, Dr. Hornsey said it is near gender parity – the highest of any of the university’s STEM programs. As the program expands, he hopes it will help address the significant underrepresentation of women in Canada’s technology sector. While women comprise almost half of the Canadian work force, only 24 per cent of tech workers across Canada are women – a number that has only increased by two per cent over the last two decades.
Programs like the one at York could also help with Canada’s tech labour shortage. According to Equinix’s Global Tech Trends Survey, 70 per cent of Canadian information technology companies view a shortage of personnel with IT skills as a main threat to their businesses. The university worked with senior technology experts from 15 businesses, companies, public sector organizations and industry associations who advised on a set of “occupational standards” to determine what an “ideal graduate” would look like, said Dr. Hornsey. The businesses include homegrown unicorn Shopify, Toronto-based data solutions company Cinchy, and American and international subsidiaries such as EY Canada, General Motors Canada and IBM Canada. “[The group’s] direct influence on the coursework is not very high,” said Dr. Hornsey. “[They] were more focused on the goals of the program.”
Admission to the program involves a two-step process. Students first applied for the digital technologies degree the same way they would for any other Ontario university program. Once their application was processed, they were given access to a job board with postings from York’s employment partners. After they pass the interview process and are given an offer of employment, they receive a full offer of admission from the university. Sienna Markham, a 17-year-old student from Oakville, said she was delighted to be accepted into the program after only recently deciding to pursue a career in computer science. After completing five interviews with American cloud software company Ceridian, she was offered a position as a product security analyst. “I’m actually the youngest person in the program, so [the interview process] was pretty nerve-wracking,” she said. Sienna now works 37.5 hours a week for Ceridian, mostly from home, and says her employer allows her the flexibility to be able to complete her coursework each Friday. While the workload is a lot to manage, she believes it will be worthwhile if she graduates with a professional network and ample experience in cybersecurity. “I’m already getting hands-on experience in my field, instead of working through a four-year program before you start that – you’re starting now,” she said. “It’s an amazing opportunity.”
Despite the program’s potential benefits, its high concentration of time in the workplace is “unusual in the university space,” said Judene Pretti, a senior advisor at the University of Waterloo’s Work-Learn Institute. But she points out it’s important for universities to experiment with different work-integrated learning formulas because there is limited research on how program outcomes might be affected differently according to the percentage of time students spend working versus studying. “The most important thing is that academic institutions work closely with students and employers to balance their needs,” said Dr. Pretti, who is also the chair of the research committee at the national work-integrated learning organization CEWIL Canada. “No one program is going to do it for all students, or all employers.”
In 2020, the Ontario provincial government introduced new strategic mandate agreements for universities and colleges that receive provincial funding, but were delayed for three years due to the pandemic. The 2020-2025 agreements support the government’s controversial performance-based funding model which ties provincial funding to “student and economic outcomes” that are measured by 10 metrics, such as graduate employment rates, graduate earnings and an institution’s local economic impact. The province expects to fully implement the new mechanism in 2024-2025 and anticipates that 25 per cent of funding will be tied to these metrics. Critics say that the shift limits the meaning of “performance” to labour-market, industry and economic outcomes and underscores how the essential purpose of universities is changing. Dr. Pretti, however, disagrees holds, particularly as it relates to work-integrated learning programs.
“Research suggests that work-integrated learning programs are equipping students in ways much beyond being ready for a particular job,” she said, with competencies such as intercultural effectiveness, an innovation mindset, navigating various communication settings and problem-solving. Such characteristics she noted are “appealing to governments who want to know that we’re investing in programs that are going to help with labour market outcomes. But seeing it only as that is missing the bigger picture and the sentiment with which they are being built.”
York hopes to expand the program next year, and eventually open it up to both international and domestic students, said Dr. Hornsey. At the same time, the university is planning to increase the amount of experiential learning opportunities in other programs.