THE Higher Education Commission (HEC) recently launched a new competency-based undergraduate system for Pakistani universities and degree-awarding institutions. Summer internships are an essential component of the framework. Internships have been made an integral part of the educational experience. But the test of this latest addition can only be assessed through its implementation.
Even before the HEC’s latest move, student internships were an integral part of professional and higher education for many degree programmes. Almost all well-known institutions of higher learning arrange to send their students to firms, industries, organisations etc. where they can get the relevant experience. Students spend one or two months in the organisation. Their experiences are varied and should be analysed in order to make improvements.
The exercise begins with the dispatch of correspondence to prospective firms and establishments. Negotiations on the number of internship positions, terms and conditions of tasks, duration and reporting protocols are part of the routine followed worldwide. It is a moment of excitement for the young folk, who compete for internship slots, when they are selected to experience a work environment first-hand.
Even earlier, internships were integral to student life.
In firms and organisations that routinely accept student interns, the programmes are well organised and students are facilitated in a meticulous manner. Students are handed a complete description of their assignment and milestones to be achieved, details of contact persons or departments which can guide them in drawing up or structuring schedules, and so on. The students gain a lot in terms of understanding the field of work and the organisational culture as well as professional values. Some organisations pre-test the students to assess their capabilities and interest during the first few days of work. Thereafter, they are placed in departments where their input can be effectively utilised.
The objective is to provide students an opportunity to observe the practice and applications of theoretical concepts. For instance, many students are able to obtain hands-on experience with state-of-the-art software packages. Engineering students work with machinery they learn about in classrooms. Students of architecture get to work on designs that are already in the process of being executed.
There is a downside though. Some students complain about the lack of prior planning in host firms. Mundane work is assigned to them. Tasks such as sifting through redundant office records, making cumbersome inventories, doing data-entry operations etc. are practically invented to keep the students ‘busy’. Due to reasons of confidentiality, they are not allowed to enter spaces where commercially important operations are underway. In some cases, the students are asked to leave early; they are not allowed to benefit from their association with the organisation. Students also bring back tales of substandard work. Such experiences can leave students utterly disillusioned.
Besides, in many cases, interns do not receive orientation material or a task list, rendering them directionless. Many firms don’t advertise or liaise with university managements. Similarly, some placement offices in universities are slow to respond to the queries of prospective employers.
Issues related to gender sensitisation are also crucial. About half of the student body in institutions of higher learning comprises young women, who, like their male counterparts, apply to and are accepted by various organisations for internships in their respective areas of interest. However, incidents of harassment of various kinds have been reported by some of these students. Undesirable gestures, indecent remarks and uncouth conduct on the part of some staff members appear to be quite common. The women students have tended not to report such situations to the management of the organisation where they are interning. Such events shatter their image of the business world and there is apprehension on their part when it comes to stepping into the job market after graduating. Besides, their self-confidence can suffer enormously.
These issues must be addressed to make all internships a rewarding experience. Teaching institutions can assign course credits for completing an internship, as done in many universities globally. Many times, an effective internship can lead to employment in the same establishment.
Universities located in less-developed regions require enormous support from the HEC and other stakeholders. One way to deal with this challenge is to link them up with more established institutions for capacity building. Besides, in this clime of Covid-19, many firms and establishments are working either completely online or with thin resident staff. This will impact internship programmes and must be looked into.
The writer is an academic and researcher based in Karachi.
Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2021