Work-based learning has taken a Covid battering – time to rope in experts to find solutions

Work-based learning has taken a Covid battering – time to rope in experts to find solutions
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Many companies are still struggling to accommodate enough students to meet their workplace-based learning obligations. With a fifth wave looming, they along with higher education institutions and organisations need to meet the challenge.

Work-based learning (WBL) or workplace-based learning (WPBL) refers to learning that takes place in real work environments. Many public and private sector organisations and companies have agreements with higher education institutions to offer students placements in the form of learnerships, apprenticeships, internships and student work experience. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the provision of WBL for students, and many companies are not offering or have reduced the number of placements on offer. This has a serious negative effect on the quality of training of students who are enrolled for qualifications that have WBL as a compulsory fundamental component of these programmes.

Many post-school education and training qualifications offered by the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and other colleges and universities, such as diplomas and degrees, require students to gain experience in a work environment that is relevant to the qualifications they are registered for, which are mainly for professional and vocational specialised programmes. The WBL is intended to allow students to practise the skills learnt in theory by applying them in work contexts and to understand what the work could entail after they graduate. Students engaged in WBL will also be able to observe, reflect on and strengthen important soft skills, including critical thinking, problem solving, networking, working in a team, communication and professionalism.

The term WBL is sometimes used interchangeably with the term work-integrated learning (WIL). However, WBL is one form of WIL which also encompasses other learning activities such as problem-based learning and simulated learning, which may be facilitated by the lecturer or done by the student in a self-study activity. The difference with WBL is that it is a student learning experience that is collaboratively structured between the workplace, the institution and the student to achieve specified learning outcomes, and is jointly supervised and assessed by the workplace supervisor and the lecturer.

The Covid-19 pandemic has severely disrupted this critical component of student learning. During lockdown many industries were closed, and some that were unable to recover financially have shut permanently. Higher education institutions that were themselves forced into remote emergency learning and teaching had many of their WBL arrangements for their students in disarray. Luckily for some students, a few institutions were, as a matter of urgency, able to create virtual or simulated learning experiences using advanced technology, but most institutions have been unable to adapt their WBL programmes adequately or to organise all student placements during the past two years. The TVET colleges whose programmes have a significant practical component rely heavily on industry for WBL.

The fifth wave of Covid-19 is imminent, and many workplaces continue to have staff working remotely or on rotation. They may therefore continue to find it challenging to accommodate enough students to meet their WBL obligations. Amid the many challenges facing workplaces and higher education institutions, WBL requires urgent consideration. Higher education institutions, organisations and companies will need to seek creative and innovative solutions to disrupted WBL and ensure this vital learning need is met. 

Using technology may be the answer, but authorities will need to gather the experts to offer solutions for all institutions in the higher education sector to ensure no students are deprived of an alternative to WBL when placements are unavailable. We should try to do everything possible to ensure that our graduates entering the workforce in these challenging times have been adequately trained.

Some good work has already been done. A useful resource on WBL was published in 2021 by Universities South Africa, titled Guidelines for Universities to Follow Regarding Work Integrated Learning in the Context of the Covid-19 Pandemic, and is available here. However, more needs to be done. DM168

Q&A with Professor Naidoo

Q: Owing to financial difficulties I was unable to study after I finished school and have been working in the administration department of a big insurance company for the past six years. Last year some people were retrenched and I am worried I may be next. I want to do a part-time sales and marketing course and am looking for the lowest fees. How should I choose where to study?

A: Here are a few points that may help you make your choice:

Decide what qualification you wish to study for. Since you have not studied before you would have a choice of a higher certificate that takes one year of full-time study, or a diploma or degree, which takes three years of full-time study. If you wish to study part-time, many institutions will offer the same programme over a longer period. These need to be qualifications that are registered on the National Qualifications Framework. Whole qualifications instead of short courses have more value in the marketplace, especially when you are starting out in your studies. Once you have obtained a full qualification, there can also be value in doing short courses to enhance specific skills.

You will need to choose whether you would like to attend classes after working hours or study online. Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, many institutions have shifted their classes online for now.

The final decision is whether to study at a public or private institution. The fees at public universities are generally lower than at private institutions. However, cheapest may not always be the best – it is necessary to check on the modules that make up the programme and the regulations governing that programme. A case in point is a student who failed three out of the six modules in the year and was required to repeat all six modules. Although this made no sense, it was part of the regulations for that programme that she had signed up for at that institution. So, reading the fine print in the study contract you sign is important.

It will help if you create a table or spreadsheet and make notes on each institution and programme you research. DM168

Professor Monie Naidoo is an independent education development specialist and career coach. She was previously director of accreditation at the Council on Higher Education.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


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