The University of Waterloo boasts that it has the most reputable co-op program in Canada, forming a foundation for many of its programs and boasting a “high success rate.” However, the program has come under scrutiny recently as the co-op fees were again raised at the beginning of the school year. This has caused a backlash, with an online petition and posters critical of the program appearing across campus. We need to end the exploitative nature of co-op placements, end all ancillary fees, and institute free education for all students.

Origins of the co-op program

Cooperative education is an educational method that brings into contact traditional classroom learning and real-world work experience and has its origins in the United States. The incessant need for the capitalists to have a trained workforce led to a pragmatic transformation of the education system into a means of producing workers through real work experience. The questions of providing “real-world” on the job experience for the students and creating mutually beneficial ties bet

ween the capitalist employers and the university and college administration became increasingly relevant when designing new educational programs tailored to very specific careers in the late 19th and early 20th century.  


In 1906, the first cooperative educational program started with a class of 27 engineering students at the University of Cincinnati, which was a very industrial city at the time. Because of the benefits to both the institution, administration, and the capitalist factory owners, this educational model quickly spread to other universities and programs (business administration and liberal arts) and in 1920, the first women were admitted in the cooperative program.

The co-operative education program inevitably made its way to Canada, first in the region of Kitchener-Waterloo in 1957. This region had a fast-growing population and very large manufacturing and business sectors, but only a small liberal arts college as the only higher education institution. Local capitalists eventually saw an opportunity to create a new engineering school that would be entirely based on the co-operative model of education. Fast-forward to today and the University of Waterloo is now one of the largest co-op schools in the world with over 20 000 students enrolled in over 120 co-op programs and its model has also spread across the country from coast to coast.

Overview of the current state of the co-op program

The Waterloo program is structured around two academic terms of 16 weeks and one work term of 16 weeks per year. Students must find a place to work full time with a supervisor that will evaluate the work and contributions during the work term. The co-op students must also pay their full tuition plus extra co-op fees during their work term. Minimum wage remuneration is not necessary during these work terms, and in some cases when students fail to find a paid work term, they are forced to take on unpaid work terms to receive their academic credit for the term.

Before the work term, that is during the preceding academic term, students need to prepare many co-op applications, prepare for and take many interviews, and attend mandatory workshops throughout this process. This process has often been compared to taking on an extra course on top of a full academic load.  The extremely competitive nature of this capitalistic education model often leaves students severely stressed and exhausted after the application process has passed.

After the application process, the students must work for the capitalists whose evaluation of the student’s term is very important to receive the academic credit. Many reports of these work experiences are summarized by not receiving any worthwhile training, only doing menial repetitive tasks, feeling at the mercy of the employer and in some cases, students are fired due to their deteriorating mental state and ability to work. The University of Waterloo, due to a high number of student suicides in the past few years, has come under scrutiny on the environment and culture surrounding the hyper-competitiveness of its programs and the general lack of consideration for well-being of the students. In fact, some of the recommendations put forth by the President’s Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health highlighted the fact that the co-op program was one of the major stressors for students on campus and should be reviewed.

Contradictions in the co-op program under capitalism

The principal benefit of the current setup of the co-op program from the perspective of the capitalists, is in the renewable supply of skilled, low cost, and free labour. This is justified by the perspective for students to get “valuable on the job training,” but the training aspect of the work is also put into question when looking from a capitalist perspective. Educating is a considerable investment of time for results that do not lead to productive benefits immediately. Due to the transitory nature of the co-op placements, the education would be limited to immediate gains in productivity for the employer. As such, employers are less incentivized to educate the co-ops in more complex tasks and the training is limited to the most basic unskilled labour in many cases. This is compounded in that the most undesirable tasks fall to the co-op students who are at the lowest part of the hierarchy of any given workplace. Often the students spend the majority of their placement performing the most repetitive and physically demanding tasks available.

Now, many employers will claim that the co-op placement is proving ground for prospective employees. If a student performs well for the employer, they will be taken on full-time. This of course may be the case in a number of placements, but the real incentive for the employer often runs contrary to this. If the employer is guaranteed a steady stream of continuous low cost and precarious skilled labourers, that need to prove themselves, then why would they want to hire someone full time. Indeed, many placements are designed for continuous rotation of fresh co-op students.

Besides the low-cost of employment, the co-op system, especially where the successful completion of a term is necessary for graduation, forces the student to submit entirely to the will of the employer. Not only is the student at risk of wasting a term of their educational requirements if they do not meet the satisfaction of the employers, but their loss is multiplied by the fact that the co-ops have to pay several thousands of dollars to be enrolled in the co-op program for the term.

Finally, in the case of co-op program based degrees like most of those at the University of Waterloo, the successful completion of several work terms is mandatory for graduation. This puts extreme pressure on the student from a number of directions. The student needs to desperately find a placement for the term, which, especially in the context of a capitalist crisis, forces a student into fields that are not of interest and into unpaid placements, where the employer gets 4 months of their labour at no cost. The unfortunate student does not have much of a choice in this matter, they have invested thousands of dollars and years of their life in their education, and risk losing their investment if they do not fall in with the plan. This also gives the employer an extreme amount of leverage in dealing with the co-ops. Not only can they receive low paid and unpaid skilled labour from university students, these students risk losing their investments in time and money if they do not satisfy the employer.

The need for free education as part of a socialist program

The many problems with the co-operative education programs at Waterloo and elsewhere are rooted in the fact that this model is based on the capitalistic mutually beneficial relations between the employers and the university, leaving the students to fight among themselves for the right to sell their wage labor to the capitalists. In order to get the maximal benefits out of a co-operative education, an important systemic change must take place.

From a socialist perspective, there is certainly room for the development of practical skills in the earliest levels of education. Practical experience is just as important for higher levels, but in a socialist society, this goal would be disconnected from profit. The integration of theoretical and practical education would be conducted with the interests of the student and the needs of the society as a whole in mind. Effectively, what this means is that students will no longer be forced to go into debt during the co-op term and will no longer be at the mercy of their supervisors due to the fear of losing their massive investment in education. They would also not be automatically relegated to performing only the most undesirable task in a workplace, where the progressive automation of the workplace will also help considerably. And importantly from the students’ perspectives, a socialist planned economy with guaranteed access to employment and with wages that allow for a comfortable existence would mean they will not be held in fear about their future at every step of his process.

A major step in achieving this is the fight for a program of free education and cancellation of all student debt. Student debt is one of the principal ways capitalism is holding down millions of students and young workers today. But under the laws of capitalism, debt has to be paid back at some point to the profit of someone. Counting the bankers profiting off the debt and employers paying low wages, there are too many capitalists with huge stakes in keeping this dynamic as it is.

Besides these demands for all students, specific demands need to be made with the co-op program in mind:

All co-op placements should be paid. No more free labour from students!

All placements should include union representation and benefits organized at a university level. Co-op students should be able to seek resolution to issues and grievances with their employer through elected union representatives.

The placements should be planned by the university before the beginning of every term. All students should be guaranteed quality and paid placements with solid educational grounds. If the university cannot assure these things, then the work term should not be a mandatory degree requirement.

Students should have fair access to affordable and quality food, housing, and transportation during the work term. Placements in cities with higher cost of living should be supported accordingly.

To be successful these demands need to be linked with an overall struggle of workers and students for a socialist society. Join Fightback today and help us make it happen! 

View the full student program here!