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University of Groningen Prepares its Students for the World of Work via its Approach in Work-Based Learning (WBL)

In this article, UIIN – Lehigh University Iacocca Scholars Tori Campbell and Jessica Osgoodby share with the UIIN readers their impressions of their visit to University of Groningen, and discuss the efforts of the university in integrating Work Based Learning (WBL) experiences into its curriculum.

Young people are creative, have fresh and open minds, and are not too set in their ways. Therefore, the best way to adopt these values would be to foster a mindset that recognizes creation and innovation as the best way to progress society. The University of Groningen is located in a city with one of the youngest populations in the Netherlands. To prepare this population for the future, the university places great importance on creating a conducive environment that foster relevant and innovative learning experiences through its diverse range of educational offerings, and ensures maximum impact on the society. Be it via its interdisciplinary research, international and summer school programs, or its entrepreneurship support structures, the University of Groningen puts the students at the heart of its activities, and broaden their visions further.

In that, instilling entrepreneurial attitudes, soft skills, and work-based learning (WBL) in students is one of the major missions of the university as a whole. The 2015-2020 strategic plan of the University of Groningen has made explicit references to stimulation of innovation and entrepreneurship in education and research. Here the question is; how can student creativity be valorized? How can universities, in addition to their core missions of education and research, fulfil their “third mission” – a mission that has changed the way universities see their value in the global market – and contribute to society in a meaningful way? For the University of Groningen, the answer to this question is quite simple. From bachelor all the way up to PhD students, the ability to understand working together in interdisciplinary teams, in international settings, and on entrepreneurial projects is emphasized as a part of their educational program. Slowly being integrated into the curriculum of various study programs, WBL at University of Groningen offers students the opportunity to have industry experience to put their skills to practical use. This implementation sets the University of Groningen apart, with their efforts recognised by Dutch employers and current rankings that place the university 5th in the Netherlands for student employability.

WBL integration in the fields of Management, Engineering, and Law

The Science, Business & Policy Master (SBP) is an example how a study program incorporates a fulltime work placement, and a course program where students learn business and policy topics, solve real business challenges, design and implement policies, and attend workshops on how to apply for jobs and write CVs. This special track called Acquisitions Tools & Career Management (ACTM) within the SBP program is enrolled by 65 students every year, in combination of their own research master’s programs. Another example comes from the faculty of Law, where the department offers its students dual masters, in which the students are given the opportunity to combine their regular Dutch degree with a seminar in judicial procedure, and a 5-month-long placement in one of the 18 partners of the programme. The “Design Project” module within the Industrial Engineering and Management (IEM) study program also allows students to get involved with an individual project-based-learning where they design a ‘technical system’ for, or in, an organization over the course of 18 weeks.

The need for the integration with industries stems from the students themselves. A common complaint among students in university settings is that what they are taught in the classroom is not often transferable to the work place. As a result, the University has decided to contribute to fixing this disconnect, also via involvement in European Commission funded projects, e.g. WEXHE (Integrating Entrepreneurship and Work Experience into Higher Education) that aims to boost student work experience during their studies. The project aims to promote the spread of work-based learning practices across European Universities. Outputs of this three-year Knowledge Alliance project is also exploited by the International Tuning Academy, based both at the Deusto University in Spain as well as at the University of Groningen, to find solutions for the gap between student competences and the industry needs at universities across the world.

Challenges and opportunities

While there is progress, there are still many challenges ahead before work-based learning becomes common practice in curricula. One of the challenges is the unfamiliarity with this new method of learning among the academic staff. Lack of funding is also considered a major barrier for work-based learning implementation, to be invested in the very much-needed human resources to expand the reach of industrial stakeholders, implement collaborative programs, as well as ensuring integration of relevant experiences in course curriculums.

Moving forward, the implementation of work-based learning might encounter challenges, but with the results of project WEXHE and the work of the Tuning Academy, more higher education institutes will begin to realize what the value WBL actually is. Therefore, we can expect to see the work-based learning model implemented much more commonly both at the University of Groningen and in more European universities in the future.

Image credit: 1-Blog Header: Peter van der Sijde; 2-In text image 1: Marcel Spanjer; 3-In text image 2: Peter van der Sijde

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