PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION EDUCATION AND PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE IN ROMANIA: EXPLORING STUDENTS' PERCEPTIONS.
Universities and faculties/departments which offer public administration (PA from here on) programs often promote increasing the employability of graduates as a long term strategic goal, but most efforts (both practical and academic) focus on improving or updating the curricula, strategic partnerships, dual accreditation, new teaching methods, e-learning and so on, while ignoring the more hands-on approach, namely professional practice or practicum. The short term stages that students spend in public institutions, NGOs or other types of organizations in order to fulfill their diploma/graduation requirements are often looked on as an afterthought by students, professors, host institutions or educational management, thus minimizing the potential positive outcomes of these activities. By engaging directly in the activity of public organizations or NGOs students can effectively use the skills and knowledge acquired during formal classes, create networks, find mentors, enter into contact with citizens and their problems and obtain the much needed professional experience required to obtain a job, while simultaneously improving their theoretical knowledge and skills. Practicum in PA was also connected with improvements in policy analysis and general professional skills and the practicum experience can be used to assist students in decisions regarding their career, while the skills and competences obtained during the practicum also tend to have a transversal nature and apply in different professional fields (Sprague and Percy, 2014).
The aim of this exploratory research (1) is to provide a general overview of professional practice in Romanian PA education by looking at undergraduate students' experiences with different host institutions during the practicum stage. The following section offers a brief presentation of the practicum focusing on the potential benefits and the problems which might arise when introducing students in different work environments, while also trying to provide a more complex conceptual distinction between practicum and internship. The third section focusses on methodological issues such as the instrument (questionnaire) used for data collection, as well as the data collection process and key socio-demographics characteristics of the sample. The forth section presents the empirical results and discussions on students' satisfaction regarding the practicum, the perceived utility of this process as well as strengths and weaknesses; the last subsection presents a factor analysis conducted to reduce the ten perceivable benefits of practicum to two latent dimensions/factors. Section 5 concludes and provides further policy recommendations.
Practicum: definitions, potential benefits and problems
Although recent studies have focused on the transformation and reform of PA university education in Central and Eastern Europe (Staronova and Gajduschek, 2016; Hintea, 2013), the Europeanization of PA teaching (Brans and Coenen, 2016), potential future strategies for PA schools (Hintea, 2013), the role of certain disciplines in the PA curricula (Ongaro, 2019) or how certain disciplines or topics should be taught (Engbers, 2016; Glennon, Hodgkinson and Knowles, 2019; Thom, 2019; Mallinson, 2018), the practicum in PA seems to be an under-researched topic. In general, the practicum refers to both: (a) the co-curricular experience and obligation of engaging in professional work supervised, coordinated and monitored by a practitioner (tutor) over a short period of time; and (b) the period and institutional/organizational setup (place) in which students can implement, use and test the knowledge, skills and aptitudes acquired during formal courses and seminars.
From a technical perspective, the practicum can be defined, in general, as the period required in the school curriculum and limited in time in which the students 'work' in a particular institution or organization under the guidance and coordination of an employee of the institution (tutor/guardian), acquiring the status of a 'student apprentice'; a simpler definition refers to it as 'learning by doing' (Daresh, 1990). In most cases, during practice the student does not have the status of a permanent employee and is not paid for his work (which is often part-time). Also, considering his 'apprentice' status during the practicum, the student is not invested with all (or any) of the authority, responsibilities and powers detained by a formal/permanent employee, while his activity and work in the organization is limited and closely monitored, coordinated and supervised by an employee (which holds the status of tutor and is responsible for the activity of the student). Most often, different words and concepts are used interchangeably to encompass these experiences such as practicum, field experience, service learning, capstone experience, or internship although some authors argue that there is a difference between these concepts and what they actually entail for students (Ong'ondo and Jwan, 2009; Lim and Mustafa, 2013; Budgen and Gamroth, 2008; Frey, 2008). Furthermore, beside the titles of such educational endeavors, the actual activities might also differ between programs and institutions as 'there is less uniformity in pedagogy or the delivery of practical experience' (Garris, Madden and Rodgers, 2008, p. 992).
The main differences between practicum and internships are presented in Table 1, according to multiple dimensions.
It should be no longer a novelty for anyone in academia that the practicum is of crucial educational significance for students and an important component in their education, training and formation as specialists as most faculties and universities around the world, regardless of their specialization, include the practicum in their curriculum in different and various forms; incidentally, one of the prerequisites for the accreditation of an undergraduate program in Romania is the existence or integration of practicum in the program curriculum. The practicum is carried out under the supervision of a professor, for a period of 2 to 4 weeks for an academic year, based on conventions of practicum with different host organizations and according to institutional requirements which can include: objectives, types of activities, students' documents and their evaluation (Romanian Agency for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, undated). Similar developments, where practicum or other forms of practical education are required in the external accreditation process, can also be observed in the USA (Ahmed, 2015).
In general, the most important benefit of practicum is that students have the opportunity to put into practice (test) the knowledge acquired during theoretical courses and gain some hands-on experience in their field of specialization; namely, students have the opportunity to interact with professionals and to observe the real and practical activities entailed by a job in their area of specialization (Ferrer-Vinent and Sobel, 2011; Frey, 2008; Cameron-Jones and O'Hara, 1999; Scott, Gentry and Phillips, 2014; Nonis and Tan Sing Yee, 2011; McDonnough and Matkins, 2010; Macy, Squires and Barton, 2009; Ong'ondo and Jwan, 2009; Ralph, Walker and Wimmer, 2009; Spirito-Dalgin, Bruch and Barber, 2010; Grudnoff and Williams, 2010; Astika, 2014; Pacios, 2013). Furthermore, some studies (Goh et al., 2009; Lain et al., 2014) point out that the practicum contributes considerably to the development of students' confidence vis-avis their specialist or professional skills.
The main problems during practicum refer to the organization of this activity: deficient (lack of) information provided to students on how certain tasks should be realized, lack of interest and involvement of tutors, the fact that students are not introduced to the organizations and familiarized with the organization (the induction process is missing, superficial or deficient), inappropriate treatment of students and lack of communication between employees and students, the absence of monitoring and a purely formal assessment of students (Pacios, 2013). Other issues identified in the literature range from reduced flexibility vis-a-vis the practicum schedule (students are often required to also attend regular/formal classes during their practicum stage), lack of adequate mentoring relationships, overwhelming, redundant and routine practicum tasks that are irrelevant for the specialization of students (Ralph, Walker and Wimmer, 2009) to the need for more communication and increased involvement from university staff (Nippak et al., 2014).
Other problems refer to cultural, opinion and professional differences between tutors, professors and students; Astika (2014) notes that one of the hardest challenges of students during practicum is that, in certain situations, they must follow a particular pattern or thinking and acting which is required or suggested by the tutor of practice (reflecting his way of thinking, acting and doing) but which differs or contradicts the knowledge, way of thinking and even the organizational culture the student acquired during university courses. Narrowing the gap between the way of thinking and acting learned by students in classrooms and the way of thinking and acting required by tutors can only be achieved by implementing a mentoring relationship between the tutor and the student, a relationship that involves the discussion and analysis of both viewpoints.
Moreover, some authors (Leshem, 2012; Zanting, Verloop and Vermunt, 2001; Ligadu, 2012; Arshavskaya, 2016) argue that the existence of a mentoring relationship between the tutor and the student is a crucial factor in ensuring the success of such practices and, implicitly, in the professional development of students. One of the problems often signaled by students during practicum refers to the mentoring process, as some tutors are not able to establish a real mentoring relationship with...
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