Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

Are University Co-Operative Education Students Safe? Perceptions of Risk to Students on Work Terms

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

Are University Co-Operative Education Students Safe? Perceptions of Risk to Students on Work Terms

Article excerpt


Universities and other postsecondary institutions are increasingly expanding their learning opportunities to include co-curricular and experiential learning opportunities, many of which take place in the community. This has resulted in questions about student safety while participating in university-sponsored activities off campus. The present research seeks to explore Canadian university co-operative education co-ordinators' perceptions of the actual and potential risks to their students and to assess their perceptions of the safety of co-operative education students. The key research question is: What do co-ordinators perceive as the main risks to students in co-operative education? This research builds upon previous explorations of co-operative education co-ordinators' perceptions of their responsibility in risk assessment and management, as well as the role of the university in preparing co-ordinators to assess and minimize risk (Newhook, 2013).

Literature Review

One of the most formal and arguably most effective forms of experiential education is co-operative education, which includes extended periods of full-time work as an integral and mandatory part of a student's academic program. The aim of a co-operative education program is to integrate theoretical classroom instruction with practical and authentic on-the-job learning in the student's area of study (Billet & Choy, 2011, p. 25; CAFCE, 2009; Katula & Threnhauser, 1999, p. 244; Wessels, 2005, p. 6). A recent Ipsos Reid (2010) online poll of 1,493 adult Canadians revealed that one in seven Canadians with postsecondary education participated in a co-operative education program (p. 1). It is important to note that co-operative education differs from other forms of experiential activities in that the student is both an employee and a student, so the work term is both employment and education and thus carries the legal and ethical considerations of both. Despite the growth and maturation of research about co-operative education since the early 2000s (Zegwaard & Coll, 2011, p. 9), there remains very little research on the legal and ethical risks involved in co-operative education in general (Newhook, 2013).

Serious risks to students in university co-operative education programs in Canada are rare, although in three cases over the last decade, students died while on work terms. A co-op student in British Columbia died in a car accident on his way home from work following a period where he had worked 96.5 hours over the eight days prior to the accident (Workers Compensation Appeal Tribunal of British Columbia, 2009). A student from the University of Waterloo was the victim of Canada's first documented fatal wolf attack on a human (Jobin, 2007); the third-year geological engineering student was killed in November 2005 near Points North Landing, in Saskatchewan, while on a work term. In addition is the case of a University of Victoria co-op student who died by suicide in 2012, six months after he was terminated from his work term with the Government of British Columbia ("Roderick MacIsaac suicide," 2014). MacIsaac was one of seven researchers fired or suspended as part of an investigation about the misuse of personal health information; he had been unable to complete his doctorate as a result of his termination.

It is well established that universities have a duty of care to guard against reasonably foreseeable events that could result in injury for students participating in off-campus activities that form part of the student's academic program and that are supported by university staff (Birtwistle, 2002; Katter, 2002; Middlemiss, 2000, p. 79; Pearson & Beckham, 2005; Schoepfer & Dodds, 2010). It has also been established that co-operative education co-ordinators are uncertain about the extent of their responsibilities in assessing and minimizing risk, and that they are guided more by their own tacit knowledge and experiences than by institutional policy (Newhook, 2013). …

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