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A broad consensus is emerging in Ontario and at the federal level in favour of expanding postsecondary students’ access to experiential or “work-integrated learning” (WIL) opportunities. One of the challenges in implementing this vision is navigating the complex legal status of students as they leave campus and enter workplaces in a wide range of industries and roles. This study aims to support these efforts by mapping the current legal landscape for WIL to identify both risks and opportunities for students, post-secondary institutions (PSIs) and placement hosts alike (referred to collectively in this study as “WIL participants”). It makes recommendations to streamline, clarify and strengthen key legal frameworks and improve institutional practices in managing WIL programs and their legal implications.

WIL includes “a variety of applied and work-based experiences through which students are able both to contextualize their learning and gain relevant work experience” (PhillipsKPA, 2014), including co-op, internships and applied research projects. This study focuses on the law with respect to off-campus placements completed as part of a university or college program, as distinct from broader questions about the regulation of internships or training positions in the labour market as a whole.

The potential benefits of WIL are often framed in terms of human capital development. WIL is identified as a means of building workforce capabilities, as well as the skills and individual prospects of students as members of the labour force (Australian Collaborative Education Network [ACEN], 2015). However, not all those who have studied WIL are equally convinced of its benefits, at least as it is currently delivered. The human capital perspective stands in contrast with a more critical stream of analysis that associates WIL with the rise of precarious employment. A further concern is that WIL opportunities are distributed unequally among students in ways that reflect and reinforce larger labour market inequities. This report keeps both perspectives in mind and analyzes the legal frameworks surrounding WIL in Ontario to identify ways of ameliorating these concerns and promoting WIL programs that deliver real benefits.

The study examines two primary research questions: (1) How are legal issues currently impacting WIL programs in Ontario? (2) What steps could be taken to help legal frameworks and processes align more closely with the goal of expanding the availability of quality WIL programs and opportunities?

We addressed these questions through a combination of in-depth qualitative interviews with WIL experts in both legal and non-legal roles and a review of relevant provincial and federal legislation and regulations, as well as legal cases dating back to 1990. We also reviewed secondary literature on WIL in Canada and in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. As well, the report analyzes Canadian tax expenditures designed to support WIL to assess the size and scope of tax-delivered investments in these programs.