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Educating for the Future: A vision for work-integrated learning and sustainable university-industry partnerships

Posted on: October 14, 2021

Sonia Ferns, Anna Rowe and Karsten Zegwaard - editors of the new book Advances in Research, Theory and Practice in Work-Integrated Learning - share their insights on the future of learning outside the classroom:


Rapidly emerging technologies, workforce transformation, and a globally mobile marketplace are impacting on economic imperatives and essential workforce capabilities. Economic, environmental, cultural, and social sustainability are world-wide priorities. Creative thinkers, inspirational leaders, and emotionally intelligent collaborators are fundamental to addressing the challenges of the twenty-first century. The higher education sector is considered a crucial player in educating the future workforce and shaping the social and economic dynamics of communities.  To ensure the breadth, depth, and complexity inherent in workforce skills, enduring partnerships with industry and community, with support from government, are pivotal to success. Despite the ongoing narrative on the importance of graduate employability and university-industry partnerships, and a plea for change from community, industry and government sectors, the educative experience remains largely unchanged, continuing to rely on traditional teaching methodologies. Complacency can no longer be tolerated; it is time to reconceptualize the notion of partnerships in higher education and the structure of the learning experience. Fostering creativity beyond the known is the driving force for educational institutions and industry partnerships. The 21st Century workforce needs progressive minds who see beyond the here and now.


Work-Integrated Learning (WIL)

Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) is posited as a pedagogical approach for enhancing employability capabilities of graduates. WIL prepares graduates to navigate precarious, uncertain and data driven workplaces where digital literacies and creative thinking are paramount to a successful career.  The value and impact of WIL is well-substantiated with extensive research undertaken in recent years. The essence of WIL is to provide real-world learning experiences through purposefully designed curriculum which encompasses authentic interaction with industry/community stakeholders. With problem-based and experiential learning at the heart of WIL, students are afforded the flexibility to shape their learning and seek innovative solutions to contemporary real-world problems. This requires a more integrated approach to curriculum design where stakeholders work collaboratively to co-design and co-facilitate learning experiences. While university marketing material focuses on graduate employability and industry partnerships, fundamental change is required to move beyond the rhetoric and enact strategies that enhance employability, ensuring sustainability for the future.


Call to Action 

The authors of Advances in research, theory and practice in Work-Integrated Learning: Enhancing employability for a sustainable future acknowledge the contributions of WIL scholars and practitioners in advancing WIL and exploring scalable and sustainable variations. However, resonating throughout the book is collective advocacy for change, with consistent themes emerging from chapters highlighting the need to shift thinking, practice, and organizational structure. An ethos that embraces WIL pedagogies and promotes enduring partnerships with external stakeholders and students requires a cultural shift.

The book espouses a call to action for all stakeholders. While there is an appetite for change and attempts to drive change, traditional content-driven teaching practices remain a feature of the educational landscape, an approach that fails to prepare graduates to traverse a competitive, interdisciplinary, and outcomes-focussed career path. Institutions claim that partnerships with industry and community form the cornerstone of strategic imperatives with the aim to assure graduate employability. However, there is minimal funding to support brokering, monitoring, and maintaining such partnerships, with staff from both the business and education sectors attesting to a lack of resources and recognition. This timely publication critically reflects on existing scholarship and practice in WIL, discusses contemporary insights, provides a synopsis of resonating themes, and recommends areas for future research and practice. The book aims to position WIL as a strategic imperative for enabling a sustainable workforce through strengthening graduate capacity both in Australia and globally.

The Essence of Change

Rigid university policies and procedures are prohibitive to agility and the responsiveness required for building partnerships and designing flexible WIL curriculum. Rethinking roles and responsibilities of teaching staff is essential for successful implementation of WIL. A policy framework is required that is conducive to building partnerships and affords staff the time, skills and motivation to collaborate with external stakeholders to ensure currency and relevance in their teaching. Given the inherent risks associated with stakeholder engagement and WIL activities, educational institutions are vulnerable to litigation.  Systematic risk management protocols supported at an institutional level are required to ensure the health safety and wellbeing of all stakeholders. Staff capabilities and appropriate workload allocation is central to quality WIL. For effective implementation of WIL, resources need to be allocated to strengthen staff proficiency. Valuing and recognizing partnership building and facilitation of WIL learning experiences as a legitimate academic task is a priority. Leadership that drives innovation and promotes a policy structure that enables cross-disciplinary, and external collaboration is instrumental to successful WIL. 

Moreover, WIL requires a distributed leadership model where collaborative consultation dominates, as opposed to the hierarchical structures typical of higher education institutions. Leadership is pivotal to creating an institutional infrastructure that promotes WIL pedagogy and allocates funding to support partnerships that drive WIL innovation. Leadership that inspires curriculum renewal to develop more holistic, inclusive, and cohesive approaches is essential. To manage the uncertainty and ambiguity graduates will encounter, curriculum needs to incorporate a ‘whole of person’ approach that moves beyond knowledge acquisition and narrow employability skills, to a curriculum that espouses students as partners, enables personalized learning, nurtures skills transferrable across contexts, and caters to diversity.

Furthermore, assessment in universities continues to be disconnected from the learning process where students are driven by marks and grades rather than the learning afforded. The assessment process should actively engage students, involve collaboration with industry partners, and reflect authentic experiences that have meaning and relevance for the learner. WIL needs to be inclusive and provide equitable access to a diverse student cohort. While much has been written about inclusive WIL, little has changed. Industry/community-university partnerships are essential for ensuring authentic learning experiences through assessment co-design, student feedback on performance, and immersion in activities that reflect the contemporary workplace. Successful WIL is premised on partnerships with students which are pivotal to student motivation, empowerment and agency. Students need to be actively engaged in their personal learning journeys to afford outcomes that address personal aspirations. An increased emphasis on the quality of WIL is required to ensure quality assurance and continual enhancement. The current national quality frameworks fail to factor in the nuances and flexibility a WIL curriculum affords.




There is enormous potential to hasten innovation in WIL, enhance industry/community engagement nationally, and ensure work-ready graduates through building on existing initiatives and the accelerated shift caused by COVID 19. As the peak body for WIL in Australia, the Australian Collaborative Education Network (ACEN) is key to innovation in WIL; through initiating support and professional development for practitioners, and promoting critical conversations in order to ensure WIL develops and grows.  Recommendations put forward by the editors of the book reflect recommendations from a WIL report published in 2008 – little has changed. It is time to act and make a difference.

The following key areas have been identified by the authors as critical in making this happen.   

  1. Academic roles within WIL
  2. Flexible policies and procedures
  3. Distributed leadership
  4. Co-creating WIL curriculum
  5. Managing risk
  6. Resourcing and upskilling
  7. Diversifying WIL offerings
  8. Exploring technology platforms
  9. Researching and evaluating WIL practice


Advances in Research, Theory and Practice in Work-Integrated Learning  is available now from routledge.com.



Sonia Ferns Sonia J. Ferns, Adjunct Associate Professor, Curtin University, Australia, and Partner, LearnWork Consulting.
Anna Rowe Anna D. Rowe, Senior Lecturer, Portfolio of the Pro Vice-Chancellor, Education and Student Experience, and School of Education, University of New South Wales, Australia.
Karsten Zegwaard Karsten E. Zegwaard, Director of Work-Integrated Learning Research, Office of the Vice Chancellor, University of Waikato, New Zealand.