The term is not commonly used in the Philippines, where it can easily be misinterpreted as education for cooperatives. But “work-integrated learning,” a central element of the concept, is well-understood and widely practiced. The cooperation advocated is that between academe and business, or, more broadly, the schools which produce graduates and the employers expected to hire them.
All three parties in the relationship should benefit. Employers get a chance to survey and test potential recruits. Schools gain a better understanding of employer requirements from the feedback given on their students and how they may need to modify their curricula and pedagogy to meet them. Internship programs for students, as part of their college requirements, give them a chance to see real-life applications of the book learning they acquire in school.
Our system already requires cooperative education in certain fields. Education majors must do practice teaching in real schools to earn their degrees. Some schools include in their hotel and restaurant management (HRM) programs a semester of internship in the industry. The nursing curriculum, from second year onwards, requires students to rotate around specific medical areas in hospitals and clinics to gain their Related Learning Experience (RLE).
Ensuring an internship slot for students in these professional fields is a major concern of the schools that offer them. Schools that have decided to focus exclusively on the tertiary level, if they offer an education major, often maintain “laboratory schools” so that their student teachers have pupils to teach. As part of their tuition, students have to pay hefty fees for their RLE slots.
The advocates of cooperative education argue that all college students should benefit from the early exposure to the world of work. They believe that the experience helps students to evaluate—and to confirm or abandon—their initial career choices, develop the discipline of the workplace, and gives them an edge in the competition for employment after graduation.
Since the job market has become global, the new advocacy for the World Association for Cooperative Education is a borderless system for international internships. This may have started already in the HRM industry. Occasionally in Thailand and Malaysia, but more frequently in Singapore, I have seen Filipinos waiting at tables, and they tell me that they are on internship programs.
English skills make Filipino students desirable interns for tourism establishments in the region. I do not know whether they are really complying with academic requirements for their degree, or whether the “internship arrangement” is a device for exploiting low-wage workers. But I do not doubt that they benefit from the experience of working overseas and that students in other disciplines can also benefit from similar cross-border internships.
As early as a decade ago, professor Wichit Sri-saan, who founded and led three or four public universities in Thailand and served as minister of education, was already pushing for the “globalization of cooperative education.” In 2001, he hosted an international conference on this theme at Suranaree University where he was then president. Thai students have been participating in internship programs abroad, but Professor Wichit believes that the program should expand in Thailand and in the region to support the Asean Economic Community (AEC).
By the AEC deadline of 2015, the 10 independent Asean member countries should constitute one region that is: 1) economically competitive; 2) committed to a path of equitable economic development; 3) functioning as a single market and production base; and, 4) fully integrated into the global economy. “Prospective partners should see a region characterized by the free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labor, and freer flow of capital.”
Many pieces have to fall in place to achieve this AEC vision. A critical element, as Professor Wichit anticipated, is scaling up cross-border cooperative education. AEC will require additional cohorts of technically skilled personnel able to work across national boundaries. International internship programs will help prepare for this need. The challenge is in developing such programs at the necessary pace and scale.
With barely four years to go before the AEC deadline, Asean leaders will look toward the ministries of education and the institutions they control or supervise to address this need. But the task lies beyond the capacity of government bureaucracies to achieve by themselves. Incentives will help, but the AEC goals require the willing engagement of the parties that must link up to implement cooperative education: the employers, both private and public, and the region’s higher education institutions, both private and public.
The Asean Economic Community vision opens up for these parties a common need and a common opportunity. They need not wait for bureaucracies to explore the options for promoting cooperative education to gain its benefits for themselves and for the students, as Professor Wichit has demonstrated in Thailand.
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