Canadian cooperative education entices Silicon Valley

David Matthews reports from Canada on a model that gives students up to two years in work placements

May 26, 2016
Close-up of club sandwich
Source: iStock

A British sandwich course, which gives students a stint in industry during their studies, is a bit like a plain old cheese and pickle sarnie – a year of work in the middle of three or four years of academic study.

But the Canadian equivalent – called cooperative education – instead resembles a sextuple-decker club sandwich, piled high and stuffed with fillings. Undergraduates spend up to two years in paid placements, alternating between a term in the workplace and a term in the classroom.

Advocates say that the model is creating graduates who are being snapped up by some of the world’s most desirable companies at a furious rate.

The University of Waterloo, based about an hour to the west of Toronto, boasts the world’s largest cooperative programme, incorporating 60 per cent of its students.  

“If you go to Silicon Valley, they are hiring from Stanford, Berkeley and Waterloo,” Graham Carr, vice-president of research and graduate studies at Concordia University in Montreal, told Times Higher Education on a recent tour of Canadian institutions. “It’s unbelievable.”

A Wall Street Journal article earlier this month waxed lyrical about Waterloo graduates’ success, citing a 2015 report from a firm called Startup Compass that found they were the second most frequently hired in Silicon Valley after those from the University of California, Berkeley.

Tony Munro, international recruitment and partnerships manager at Waterloo, explained that the idea is not just for computer science or engineering students. History and fine art students find experience in galleries, marketing, public relations and other similar industries, he says.

As well as going out to other companies, Waterloo also employs cooperative students in its own labs. Cooperative students earn an average of C$15,000 (£7,832) per term, Munro says.

For this reason, they graduate with less debt than their non-cooperative counterparts, a 2011 study by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) found. Students reported being more satisfied with their education, and the placements gave employers a way to pre-screen potential employees, it also found.

In a Globe and Mail article last year, David McKay, president of the Royal Bank of Canada – where he did a cooperative placement as a student at Waterloo in the early 1980s – said that such programmes were one of Canada’s “quiet strengths”.

“At Waterloo, I’ve seen first hand how co-op students are more demanding and curious, pushing their peers and professors to look for fresh insights and to think more broadly and creatively about problems,” he wrote.

He also claimed that the programmes were a “social leveller”, allowing students to land good jobs without social or family connections to employers.

But there are downsides. The HEQCO report found that some students reported being not given enough work or feeling bored. One academic at Waterloo told THE that because their courses are elongated to five years, cooperative students are sometimes too tired by the end of it to go into graduate study. They have also seen how much money they can make in tech firms, and so are drawn away from continuing academic research.

Still, although Waterloo’s system is still the biggest and most feted, other Canadian universities are ramping up their efforts. Concordia’s Carr wants to scale up his own cooperative programme, “but it takes a really institutional approach”, he cautions. The work of maintaining relationships with large numbers of employers and coordinating placements is huge: at Waterloo it takes 150 staff occupying an entire building on campus to manage the cooperative effort.

And if a university wants top companies to offer cooperative placements, “you have one chance” to impress them with your students, Carr says. 

david.matthews@tesglobal.com

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