Work-integrated learning has always been a critical component of college education, but like many activities around the world, it has largely been put on hold as social-distancing measures came into effect to limit the spread of COVID-19. Relaunching internships, work placements and other hands-on learning opportunities will be a priority for colleges and institutes all over Canada and could well play an important role in the country’s economic recovery, especially when these placements are focused on innovation.
Applied research activity involving students has been growing incredibly fast at colleges and institutes over the past decade, leveraging these institutions’ close ties with industry to fuel innovation. Given their focus on meeting the needs of their communities and helping local businesses find practical solutions to a variety of challenges, it only makes sense that they will have lots to contribute to the fight against COVID-19, and, perhaps most importantly, to help Canadian businesses find a new normal post-pandemic.
In fact, these institutions and their students are already contributing to the ongoing efforts. From developing respirators and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers using 3-D printing and other advanced manufacturing techniques, to using cloud computing to create a real-time COVID-19 outbreak tracker, college and institute students have been involved in many projects to help Canada face the pandemic.
Finding a new normal once the initial crisis has passed will also require innovation and adaptation on all parts. That might be especially true for small and medium-size enterprises (SMEs) that in many cases will have to adjust their business model. Meeting this challenge by getting students involved and leveraging their fresh perspectives while providing them with valuable learning opportunities will be a win-win proposition for post-secondary institutions and employers.
This is where the hundreds of applied research centres and labs based at colleges and institutes across Canada can help. They operate in fields ranging from advanced manufacturing to agri-food, digital to clean technology, natural resources to health sciences, tourism to social innovation, and can help create linkages between businesses and student talent while driving innovation in the local community.
“Finding a new normal once the initial crisis has passed will also require innovation and adaptation on all parts.”
In 2017-18 alone, Colleges and Institutes Canada (CICan) members entered into over 7,300 partnerships to produce more than 4,400 prototypes, products, processes and services, 87% of which were completed in less than one year. More than 77% of these partnerships were with private-sector partners, and most of these with SMEs.
Over 53,000 students were involved in these partnerships and contributed to applied research projects at college and institute laboratories and research centres supporting all sectors of the economy in 2017-2018. These experiences provided them with an opportunity to deploy their learning while solving real-world problems and working with potential employers in their field.
To offer even more of these opportunities, CICan signed a historic agreement with Mitacs Canada last February to create up to 1,000 additional work-integrated learning research internships for college and institute students from across Canada over the next five years.
This agreement builds new links for college and institute students to work with industry partners and other researchers. It leverages both the extensive footprint and the longstanding relationships colleges and institutes have with community partners and local industry across the country, including rural and northern communities. Similarly, this partnership extends access to research opportunities for underrepresented groups that have traditionally sought post-secondary education at colleges and institutes in their local communities.
In response to COVID-19, Mitacs has received an additional $40 million in federal funding to support related research projects and provide 5,000 new internships for post-secondary students. This will help create more opportunities for collaboration, especially in health research. For instance, the partnership between Algonquin College, the Centre for Innovative Cancer Research and the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute has created an opportunity for students to develop fundamental health-science research skills that include testing and monitoring cancerous cells.
The Government of Canada has also leveraged the Student Work Placement Program (SWPP) to assist students and employers during the COVID-19 outbreak, by continuing to issue wage subsidies to hire students. Emergency measures will allow for more flexibility, recognizing that the start dates and duration of placements might be affected, and allowing students to work remotely.
The additional federal funding shows that, even in times of crisis, getting students involved remains a smart way to support community innovation. Whether it’s to help large public institutions or small businesses, providing them with more work-integrated learning opportunities is not just a way to ensure we prepare the workforce of tomorrow, it’s a way to give them a chance to make a real contribution. In times like these, when we all have a role to play to address the worst health crisis in generations, that might just be more important than ever.
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