Opinion Industry scholars look to global careers

In a global economy, combined study and work schemes like UNSW's prestigious Co-Op Program must go international, writes Professor Wai-Fong Chua.

Students glob crop

OPINION: When the University of NSW launched Australia’s first industry-linked scholarship scheme 25 years ago it was a somewhat radical idea to extend an undergraduate degree by a year and to incorporate significant stints of relevant work experience along the way.

The UNSW Co-op Program has since proved extremely successful in producing “work ready” young professionals and has become a flagship program, exemplifying UNSW’s core belief in the many benefits of working closely with industry. But we now want to do even more. In a global economy, combined study and work schemes like ours must go international.

For Australian students the opportunity to gain real, relevant work experience should extend, at the very least, to the Asia-Pacific region, to reflect the reality that many careers of the future will not be limited by geographic borders.

And for international students studying in Australia, universities must be able to provide opportunities for meaningful professional experience, including placements in the industries and locations where they will eventually work, many of which will also be in the Asia-Pacific.

How might such an ambitious global scheme work?

First, by extending what experience has taught us is most effective. Through the UNSW Co-op Program, 2712 high-achieving students have, since 1988, been linked to more than 300 companies which have sponsored them through their studies and provided invaluable work placements. 

Support for high achievers 

The idea for the co-operative scholarship model dates back to the rapid growth of the IT industry in the 1980s when government, industry and universities got together to solve the acute challenges early IT companies were facing in recruiting qualified staff. Today, a wide range of companies, including many prominent ASX-listed corporates and even the ASX itself, work co-operatively with UNSW to support high-achieving students studying in the faculties of business, engineering, science and the built environment.

At university, Co-op scholars study and take part in leadership programs. At work they learn critical soft skills such as communication and absorb workplace cultures, while benefiting from the opportunity to apply what they are learning at university in the real world. The result is a polished professional on graduation, ready to hit the ground running. Such collaborative models are perhaps the best examples of industry and universities working together.

Today, the average starting salary for a Co-op scholar is more than $70,000 and in some areas more than $100,000. To date, Co-op scholars have won 99 university medals. Unlike some schemes, UNSW Co-op scholars are not obliged to take up a job with any of their sponsoring companies, but more than 75 per cent choose to do so anyway. Sponsoring companies, too, have found the investment in students – $132 million in scholarships – gives them real workplace returns.

The secret to success is not necessarily selecting students with just the highest Australian tertiary admission ranks or high school marks. High achievers do always come to university with good marks, but an applicant who has worked part-time through years 11 and 12 or kept up with a competitive sport, is probably more likely to succeed than a student with higher academic marks who hasn’t juggled work, extra-curric­ular activities and community work. That’s why we don’t seek elite students, but prefer students with a wider range of attributes, talents, interests and ambitions.

Second stream 

In recognition of our aspirations to graduate global citizens, Australian universities need to consider a second stream of industry scholarships. We should be looking for students and employers with similar characteristics and matching them to multinational companies, or employers in regions and industries of high demand; such as finance and banking, information technology and emerging sectors of new technology and sustainability in China and Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.

In an ideal world, international students from Hong Kong studying finance at UNSW, for example, could do one stint of work experience in Hong Kong, while their Australian counterparts did one stint in Sydney, then the two groups would swap, ensuring students had the opportunity to gain experience in Australian and overseas workplaces.

We’ve secured more than 20 industry training placements in China, the US, Singapore and Norway in the clean-tech sector. From this modest base we will continue to build.

If there is one more attribute an industry scholarship can and should give a student it is an appreciation of the advantages such programs bestow on them. We hope they will leave university not just as well rounded global citizens, but as ethical individuals who believe in giving back.

Co-op scholars band together to contribute a few days’ pay a year to fund the university education of two students from disadvantaged backgrounds who may not otherwise come to university. Former Co-op scholars turned software hyper-achievers, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar, have gone further. The founders of Atlassian have given back more than $1 million worth of scholarships to foster the skills their industry needs, and have chosen to do so through the Co-op scheme.

Professor Wai Fong Chua is Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Students) at UNSW. 

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian Financial Review.