Why WIL should be its own discipline

We firmly believe Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) is a discipline, though it lacks official acknowledgement throughout the higher education (HE) sector globally, yet is highly sought after.

We argue that WIL should be officially acknowledged as a discipline, as it fulfills the requirements demanding rigorous research validating its effectiveness, developing best practices, and adapting to evolving educational and industry landscapes.

WIL has evolved as a critical component in the realm of education, bridging the gap between academic learning and real-world experience. However, the full potential of WIL can only be realized and advanced if it is acknowledged as a specialist discipline, encompassing a robust framework of theory, practice, and research. The neglect of this holistic approach may have far-reaching repercussions for students, educators, and the workforce at large.

The philosophical stance of the term “discipline” encompasses a systematic and structured body of knowledge governed by principles and theories specific to a field of study. This concept of discipline implies a commitment to a coherent set of ideas and practices subject to continuous scrutiny and refinement. In the context of WIL recognizing it as a discipline means acknowledging the complexity and multifaceted nature of integrating work experiences with academic learning and teaching in HE.

The recognition of WIL as a discipline reinforces the need for specialized knowledge, expertise, and scholarship in this area, ensuring it is not merely seen as an adjunct to traditional education rather a vital component of holistic learning and professional development. WIL aligns well to these demands.

WIL has a distinct theoretical underpinning guiding its principles and practices. This framework integrates pedagogical theories with insights from diverse fields, such as psychology, sociology, and organizational studies. Without a solid theoretical foundation, WIL programs risk becoming ad hoc initiatives lacking consistency, depth, effectiveness and quality.

WIL is not just about taking any type of curriculum and adding some real-world engagement. It requires a specialised workforce who are appropriately qualified to create proven structures and meaningful practical experiences going beyond simply graduate employment outcomes.

These experiences are designed to align with learning objectives, providing students with opportunities to apply theoretical knowledge, develop professional skills, human creativity, develop self-awareness, understanding culture and diversity, and an opportunity to reflect on personal growth. Without a systematic approach to practice, students may miss valuable learning opportunities, leading to a disconnect between their academic studies, career aspirations, why and how they learn.

Global changes to communities and society require great connection between people and places as can be obtained through WIL programs of learning. Thus, continuous research and scholarship are essential to the advancement of WIL as a discipline. This involves not only investigating the outcomes and impacts of WIL programs but also exploring innovative approaches and best practices.

Research should inform both theory and practice, ensuring WIL evolves in response to changing educational and industry needs. The absence of acknowledging the strong research culture that consists of a community of discipline experts will result in the continual stagnation and a failure to respond to emerging challenges and opportunities across the higher education sector.

For instance, if WIL continues to be viewed simply as a pedagogical practice, that anyone can do, and involves any type of curriculum integrating industry participation, several repercussions will occur. For one, students stand to lose the most if WIL is not recognised and treated as a specialized discipline.

They may receive suboptimal experiences not adequately preparing them for the workforce, leading to a skills gap, unethical use of student labour, and reduced employability. Second, without a cohesive framework, educational institutions may struggle to implement and sustain effective WIL programs. This could lead to fragmented efforts, wasted resources, and missed opportunities for institutional growth and reputation enhancement.

Many institutions claim WIL as a flagship of their programs as a draw card for students. Finally, a lack of specialization in WIL will result in programs being out of touch with industry needs and expectations. This disconnection can undermine the value of WIL for employers, reducing their willingness to engage with and invest in such initiatives.

In conclusion, recognizing WIL as a specialized discipline in the higher education sector is crucial for maximizing its benefits and ensuring its sustainability, including the hiring and retaining of appropriate experienced and qualified staff. By integrating theory, practice, and research via a discipline-centric view of WIL it becomes a powerful tool for student learning, educational innovation, and workforce development that is appropriately acknowledged and celebrated.

Rachael Hains-Wesson is associate professor in work-integrated learning at the University of Sydney Business School and received two PhDs the traditional way (Ph.D.t; Ph.D.t.).

Patricia Lucas is a senior lecturer specialising in work-integrated learning in the School of Sport and Recreation at Auckland University of Technology and received a PhD the traditional way (Ph.D.t.).



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