COMMENTARY || Government should expand student placements into social sector
If the government expanded the new $73-million Student Work-Integrated Learning program to all students it could help tackle Canada’s most intractable social problems.
By DAVID PEACOCK
Employment and Social Development Canada is spending $73 million over the next four years to create 10,000 paid work-placements for university, college and polytechnic students from across the country.
This Student Work-Integrated Learning program (SWLIP) sounds like a good thing for students. But it’s a selective band of students and companies that will benefit. The students must be from science, technology, engineering and mathematics related disciplines (STEM) or from business. This narrow focus raises serious questions of equity, both for students and for Canada’s extensive social and not-for-profit sector.
I am the director of a community service-learning (CSL) program at the University of Alberta. CSL is unique among experiential learning activities in that we partner specifically with not-for-profit and community-based organizations, as well as with social enterprises and government departments.
I am concerned that the good intentions of SWILP to link higher education to industry will support more students and companies that least need the assistance.
The narrow focus on STEM and business students amounts to discrimination on the basis of gender, even if it’s unintended.
Many of us wish to see more students identifying as women registered in STEM disciplines. But the reality is that SWILP disproportionately advantages male identifying students. The Canadian Association of University Teachers’ (CAUT) most recent data, for instance, reveals that in 2014/15 there were only 22 per cent of women undergraduates studying in the fields of architecture, engineering and related technologies. And just one quarter of the students in mathematics, computer and information sciences identified as female.
This stands in marked contrast to other fields. Humanities disciplines see 62 per cent of registered undergraduates identifying as women. In social and behavioural sciences and law, it is 63 per cent. In health sciences, it’s 72 per cent and in education, 77 per cent.
A STEM bias clearly leads to gender bias. Thankfully, undergraduate students identifying as female are a little better represented in business, management and public administration.
Supporting the privileged
A STEM bias in the work-integrated learning program is also likely to reward more privileged students. Research from the United States and from the U.K. has noted that undergraduates in engineering, for instance, are more likely to be from families where parents or caregivers have achieved a university or college degree. They are less likely to be from low socioeconomic status and “Black and ethnic minority” backgrounds.
In Canada, it seems a safe bet to say that students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds and Indigenous students would benefit little, overall, from SWILP.
These inequitable outcomes seem hard to square with the federal government’s “gender based analysis plus” lens. This is supposed to identify the often differing ways that women, men and gender-diverse people experience government policies and programs.
The exclusion of the not-for-profit or social sector and its organizations from the wage subsidies is a third inequity of the SWLIP program.
The industry sectors that will benefit from these students’ subsidized labour are clear from the bodies coordinating the program: Information and Communications Technology Council , Information Technology Association of Canada, Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace, Environmental Careers Organization of Canada and Biotalent Canada.
Firms in these industries stand to receive government subsidies up to $5,000 of the student’s wage. This goes up to $7,000 for students from Indigenous or newcomer backgrounds, female STEM students and students with disabilities. In Ontario, the banking sector has also been a beneficiary of work-integrated learning programs.
This selective industry support seems short-sighted, given the vast contributions the not-for-profit sector has provided to Canadian society and the country’s economy. Although the data is more than a decade old, at last count, the not-for-profit sector in Canada employed more than two million people and engaged 13 million volunteers every year.
Across the country, the sector also accounts for $106 billion—or eight per cent of the GDP. It is larger than the automotive or manufacturing industries. In Alberta alone, not-for-profits employed 417,000 people and had revenues of more than $29 billion.
The social sector is sophisticated and advanced, growing and in need of high-quality students from universities, colleges and polytechnics.
Let’s fund social sector rejuvenation
Community Service-Learning programs across Canada work with instructors and students from many disciplines, including those within the humanities, fine arts, social sciences, education, native studies and yes, also with some students from STEM and business.
Technically, the definition of work-integrated learning used by Employment and Social Development Canada includes CSL within the scope of eligible activities. But most CSL students and community partners are excluded from government support under the program.
All Canadian post-secondary students deserve opportunities equivalent to those offered to STEM and business students.
And Canada’s social sector needs the rejuvenation that talented students with social innovation skills would bring. It needs these students to tackle Canada’s most intractable social problems—such as homelessness, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, affordable housing, social cohesion and intercultural understanding.
Thankfully, there are some voices emerging, from Canadian students to provincial governments, arguing for the expansion of the SWILP program. They need our support.
This article originally appeared in The Conversation Oct. 24.