Don’t let coronavirus hang internships out to dry

Life in the age of Covid does not lend itself readily to students internships, but there are alternatives, says Benjamin Tak Yuen Chan

January 18, 2021
Hung out to dry washing
Source: iStock

Of the many Covid-related issues facing higher education institutions, one area seems to have received less attention: the provision of workplace experiential learning. However this kind of experience may be referred to in the curriculum – externship, internship, work placement − and whatever its duration, its absence would deny students an invaluable opportunity.

At a time when graduates are facing uncertain employment prospects, institutions should give this shortfall due attention to restore confidence in the integrity of learning-to-work transition, which is implicit in many degree programmes nowadays.

The impact of Covid-19 on the provision of workplace experience was felt most strongly by the graduating class of 2020. Surveys placed the magnitude of loss of work placement at 60 per cent in the UK and 35 per cent in the US. In one Hong Kong survey, 21 per cent of respondents reported that their internships had been cancelled and another 27 per cent failed to find internship opportunities.


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What few of us would want to see is a recurrence of missed opportunities this year. Institutions must therefore take proactive steps to come up with their own substitution plans instead of leaving it to the supply side, which is beset with unknowns.

For institutions considering internship replacements, a set of clear guidelines can help staff and students to prepare and adjust expectations accordingly. In our school, the guidelines were readied in September as a contingency plan. They specified the phased stages for beginning the move towards replacement options, definitions for the approved substitutes (for example, virtual internship, volunteering, industry project, in-house experiential learning), a checklist for designing the replacement activities, supporting measures for employers and students and considerations on how to evaluate the outcomes.

After the spike of Covid cases in Hong Kong from the fourth wave, beginning in late November, a school-wide decision was made to adopt the replacement options across the board, except for programmes with professional registration such as teacher training.

A good starting point for exploring meaningful alternatives to work placements is to understand their value from the student’s perspective. The survey findings in Hong Kong suggest that students value internships primarily for gaining an understanding of the workplace, to add value to their CVs and to apply what they have learned.

While it is understood that a lot of the internships that continued had to be migrated to virtual mode, that option is perceived to be less real, deficient in terms of communication with co-workers and lacking in the tools needed to perform work properly (with reference to specialised software and equipment).

The case for supporting employers to deliver virtual internships is no less strong than for those conducted in the physical workplace. It goes beyond discussing placement formalities and should encompass agreements about what exact tasks the students would be doing independently and what resources they are provided with to enable remote work, along with who will induct them into the workplace, introduce co-workers and provide regular feedback as part of the mentoring process.


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Needless to say, the academic must be checking progress with both employers and students, as well as evaluating value-added for the student and relevance to the programme of study. Educators concerned about this aspect can refer to examples of codified best practices of online internships for guidance.

The mapping of specific skills and work-related competencies can be a practical way to ensure that alternative modes of internship meet academic objectives and quality assurance requirements.

It must be acknowledged throughout that it cannot be a complete replacement despite the fact that it hopefully imbues students with certain core skills crucial to their overall academic training. At the end of the day, as new research has confirmed, both employers and students still consider face-to-face internships to be their preference. But online and other replacements can increase the versatility of various internship training options that might need to be kept post-pandemic, in line with more workplaces likely switching to hybrid working modes in future.

Last, since these replacement options are at best an emulation of the real internship experience, it is necessary for students to list their learning achievements and gather evidence of learning gains to be included in their CVs or learning portfolios. This can be presented to employers to form a credible case for their work readiness and to shepherd them into successful employment.

Benjamin Tak Yuen Chan is dean of the Li Ka Shing School of Professional and Continuing Education at the Open University of Hong Kong. He is also honorary associate professor in education at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Professional and Continuing Education.

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