The influences of academic discipline on work-based learning : the case of Hong Kong

  • Yeuk Nam NG

Student thesis: MPhil Thesis (Lingnan)


Commonly known as student internship, work-based learning stands at the intersection of work and education, and possesses distinctive features worthy of sociological analysis. Previous studies on work-based learning have focused on the tension and conflicts between student interns, the university and the host organisation. A common problem is to treat student interns as a homogenous group, without taking into account their academic backgrounds when scrutinizing the experiences and outcomes of work-based learning. This research aims to overcome this problem by drawing upon the studies of “horizontal stratification” in the sociology of education, which set out to explain the differences in labour market outcomes (for example occupational status and salary) among students with the same educational level. Going beyond the perspective of human capital, or the skills and knowledge pertaining to each academic discipline, the theory of horizontal stratification focuses on how fields of study give rise to differential access to resources, in our case work-based learning opportunities and the level of stipend or salary one receives. Guided by this theoretical framework, I propose the following research questions: How does academic discipline shape the objective outcomes of work-based learning, such as the accessibility to work and learning opportunities and the amount of financial reward? How does academic discipline shape the subjective experiences of work-based learning such as the degree of work satisfaction and the nature and contents of assigned works?

To address this question, this research covers six cases in three sectors of work – the public, the private and the third sectors. Qualitative analysis is adopted, and 31 semi-structured interviews are conducted. My informants are student interns working in the same company or industry and holding much the same position. Relevant parties such as academic staffs, host supervisors and full-time employees are interviewed too. My findings show that some academic disciplines such as social work and business are prioritised for instrumental reasons, above all professional status and market values. In some cases, the social network of academic staffs and alumni can help students finding internship vacancies. At the same time, an academic discipline can enhance work-based learning not always by virtue of the skills and knowledge it inculcates, but rather because of the normative beliefs (if not stereotypes) held by the employers. On the other side, student interns develop various strategies when searching for work-based learning opportunities. Their expectations towards internship experiences and outcomes are shaped by the perceived superiority or inferiority of their own disciplines. These perceptions are not entirely arbitrary; they are rooted in and reinforced by one’s tacit knowledge about the practical relevance and worth of a discipline. Taken together, I argue that a normative and relational hierarchy does exist among academic disciplines, inasmuch as it shapes the subjective dispositions and objective life chances of the student interns. This research thus contributes to the study of work-based learning by highlighting the perceived differences and values of academic disciplines, which constitute the source of consent, compromise and conflicts among various stakeholders.
Date of Award1 Sept 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Lingnan University
SupervisorHon Fai CHEN (Supervisor) & Tat Chor AU YEUNG (Co-supervisor)

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