Work-based Learning benefits (WBL)

How can Employers, Learners and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) benefit from working together to provide quality and affordable training to employees?


This  Work   Based   Learning   (WBL)   research   project   was   funded   by   the   European Commission’s  Erasmus funding stream. The main objectives of the project were:

  • To produce  a more  effective  way of improving  the skills  and  behaviours  of  work based employees, through the use of academic WBL programmes.
  • To show  evidence  for  the  relevance  and  viability  of  the  tripartite  approach,  and improve employer and employee knowledge and confidence in WBL qualifications by linking employer strategic objectives and staff development and mapping academic curriculum to this.
  • To improve HEI confidence by addressing issues of academic robustness, integrity of assessment, APEL and so forth.
  • To provide a platform for future collaboration between employers and HEIs for skills development and for a broader range of learners to be able to participate in higher level qualifications.

Our target audience were identified as:

  • Employees and  vocational  learners  who  want  to  combine  and  complement  their occupation based training with a recognised academic qualification.
  • Employers who  can be  shown  the benefit  to their enterprises  of developing  their employees using  a framework that ensures learning fit with their strategic aims. Employer  organisations  that  can  be  enlisted  to  help  to  promote  the  framework particularly into the SME sector.
  • National and EU government educational  and employer bodies (e.g. LSC, HEFCE, who can devise or influence policies in education in the workplace.
  • University sector across the EU who want to engage with employers  and innovate new work-based qualifications programmes.

To  achieve  the  research  objectives  it was  decided  to investigate  the views  of  the  three players in the tri-partite relationship – the Employer, Learner and the HEI.  It was assumed that there would be little knowledge of negotiated work based learning (NWBL), or NF qualifications,  but  through  questionnaires,  interviews  and  cases  studies  in  each  of  the partners, we could make a detailed analysis of the expectations of these ‘stakeholders’, first in a country  specific  context,  and  then  summarising  common  issues  in a pan-European report.

Typically the investigations within the project used research methods such as surveys, which were administered and analysed using on-line survey tools. These were followed up with individual interviews  and focus groups where appropriate.  The fieldwork  was conducted in each partner language, and analysed in a national context before the findings were collated to establish common themes, which were then conveyed through summary report giving a wider, pan–European, view.

This final report offers a synthesis of the findings  of all work packages  (WPs). Further, it provides recommendations for the improvement of the tripartite relationship between the employer, the learner, and the higher education institution (HEI). The purpose is to focus on best practice  that can be applied to the future  design and implementation  of work based learning  (WBL) in order to enhance  the quality and quantity of academic  programmes  in higher education (HE) that can be delivered in the workplace. We shall first look at each of the WPs and analyse our findings in relation to the objectives of that WP. Each WP focuses on the perceptions of one group of participants: the employer (WP3); the learner (WP4); and the HEI (WP5). Subsequently, we shall offer recommendations for future policy and practice.


A diverse range of employers from the five countries participated in the project. Below, we present a summary of the findings of the research carried out with these employers.

The concept of value-added work-based development

The survey gives a positive insight into European businesses regarding employers operating a culture of ‘growing talent’ in-house through staff development.  It suggests that continuing training and career guidance play a key role in employers’  minds in easing labour market transitions, achieving greater employment security, and increasing labour market flexibility. Work-based  development  is a common  factor  among  the  countries  in the  research  and therefore engaging successfully in WBL programmes is important to employers.

The influence of various drivers on attitudes to workforce development

Economic, demographic and political drivers affect an organisation’s attitude to workforce development. Economic drivers are clearly important to employers in all of the countries and will  continue  to  be  as long  as  EU  economies  remain  in  a depressed  state.  As  Europe emerges from the recession it may create potential as employers  could turn to WBL as a way of training  staff who have been taken on to exploit the increasing  economic  activity. Under  the  European  Employment  Strategy  (2020),  the  EU  Commission  will  work  with member states to develop existing labour market tools at regional, national and EU levels to correct imbalances of skills in labour markets. Demographic factors such as the distribution of population, age and skills exert a crucial influence on WBL development in the EU. The Bologna agreement was intended to bring about a major expansion in HE in EU countries, mainly driven by political initiatives. However, political responses in individual countries have affected higher education in different ways in different EU countries, with some countries investing more while others are making radical cutbacks in full-time educational and training expenditure. This implies a focus on WBL as a means of economic regeneration, which indicates   the  importance   of  employers   recognising   political  factors  in  developing,   or engaging in, WBL programmes.

Assessing workforce performance through formal and informal methods

The in-depth  interviews  show that  employers  measure  the performance  formally  through regular staff appraisal and by productivity measures in the workplace. Informal measures of performance  include assessing staff morale and turnover as well as workforce progression by gaining qualifications.

Gathering feedback from employers about working with academic programmes

The  research  shows  that  adult  education  and  WBL  activities  are  unequally  distributed between  small  and  large  companies,  and  large  companies  with  a  higher  number  of employees engaging more in WBL programmes. Types of engagement between employers and HEIs identified in the research range from one-off short courses to formally-accredited and negotiated postgraduate programmes of study.

Identifying ways to align employer and academic views of workforce development

The range of views of workforce development shared between employers and HEIs varies greatly between  the countries  and individual  employers  in the study.  It appears from the study that employer and academic views of workforce development vary widely between countries. Some employers have very closely managed formal collaborations with HEIs in developing and delivering WBL programmes, while others have little or no contact. The level of employer and HEI alignment also appears to vary between countries for political and economic  reasons.  These  findings  suggest  that  outcomes  of  this  study  can  provide  a significant addition to the ‘toolset’ of the European Employment Strategy in order to correct imbalances of skills and education in labour markets in a range of EU countries.


Different types of employees

The sample of learners and their organisations is diverse. 36% of Polish respondents work in organisations  with 10-50 employees,  while 24% of respondents  work in organisations  with more than 50 employees; 16% work in organisations with less than 10 employees. In Latvia the proportion of learners is more equal: 37% work in organisations with 50-250 employees and 32% work in companies with 250 or more employees; 24% work in in organisations with 10-49  employees;  and 7% work  for organisations  with  less than 9 employees.  It can be concluded that large, medium and small companies are represented in the survey almost equally, and that micro-companies, while small in number, are also represented.

Needs and aspirations

The analysis of data from all participating countries shows that the views of learners of WBL in HEIs differ from country to country. Furthermore, perceptions of employees in the private sector are different from those working in public organisations,  even in the same or similar sectors. The variety of examples in the study illustrates this clearly. In the UK, learners in the Health Sector regard negotiated and accredited WBL programmes as a sound basis for promotion  or  job  mobility.  Conversely,  in  Italy,  learners  in  private  organisations  in  the childcare  sector- that may be regarded as having some similarity to healthcare  - consider HEI WBL programmes as being useful in acquiring new job skills and knowledge. However, Italian learners from public organisations in the same sector feel that WBL courses are not relevant to their short- or long-term career aspirations due to their lack of appreciation of the potential impact of such courses. Almost 50% of Polish business graduates believe that conventional academic programmes do not provide the required workplace knowledge and skills. About 60% of graduates regard their conventional study programmes only as a basis for further learning ‘on the job’. This indicates a clear role for negotiated WBL programmes.

In  Poland  the  most frequent  learning  needs  are  managerial  (44%),  followed  by IT skills (24%) and people skills (16%). By contrast, in Italy most learners need people skills  (43%), followed equally by technical skills (29%) and IT skills (29%). In Latvia the large majority of respondents  identify  IT  skills  as  a  learning  need  (65%),  with  21%  needing  technical knowledge  and less than  10%  requiring  management  knowledge.  In the UK the  highest ratings for personal aspirations from WBL given by learners in the IT sector is to ‘improved employability’ (2.6) and ‘career enhancement’ (2.7), but for healthcare students the preferred response  is ‘career  enhancement  (2.1)  and  ‘personal  development’  (2.2).  In Poland,  the highest  rating  for  personal  aspirations  for  WBL  is  given  to  ‘salary  increase’  (2.4)  and ‘personal development’  (2.9), whereas in Latvia the highest ratings for personal aspirations relate to ‘up-skilling’ (2.0) and ‘personal development’ (2.8). In the UK, 78% of the healthcare students put ‘job security’ as their main driver, compared with 23% of the IT students. The majority  of  the  IT  students’  responses  are  evenly  divided  between  the  other  options, ‘economic’  and  ‘learning  new  technology’,  whereas  in  Poland  48%  of  the  respondents mention ‘job security’ as most important followed by 40% indicating ‘new technology’ as the main driver, and only 12% pursuing WBL for economic reasons. In Latvia, 78% of the respondents identify ‘new technology’ as the main driver, and only 22% aspire to increasing their job security. This denotes that the reasons for studying WBL programmes  are many and  varied.  It  also  implies  that  the  process  of  negotiation  and  flexibility,  which  are  not provided by conventional HE programmes, are important to learners.

Methods of assessment

In  the  UK,  the  majority  of  IT  sector  students  (average  rating  4.3)  feel  that  ‘academic knowledge’  is the knowledge which is most often assessed,  while the healthcare students (4.5) indicate ‘work-based knowledge’ as being the most assessed skill. In Poland and Italy, learners   believe   that   ‘academic   knowledge’   is   most   often   assessed   (4.1   and   4.8 respectively),  while the distribution of Latvian respondents between: ‘academic knowledge’, ‘work based performance of their job’, and ‘work based knowledge’ is more or less equal between  3.0  and  4.0.  The  research  shows  that  learners  consider  that  employer  and academic  (i.e. HEI) assessments  should be more closely aligned in terms of the way the method of assessment, the skills assessed, the assessment criteria and the feedback given are applied. The indication of the usefulness of academic assessment in the workplace is interesting. In the UK the majority of respondents think that ‘the grade I was given accurately reflected  my job performance’;  and ‘the assignment  set was relevant  to my job’. Both of these are highly rated (average for both 4.0). In Poland, the highest rating is also given to ‘the grade I was given accurately reflected my job performance’  (average rating 2.9); while Italian  respondents’  ratings  are  equally  divided  between  all  the  assessment  outcomes (average rating 3.5). In Latvia, the highest rating is also given to: ‘the assignment  set was relevant to my job’ (average rating 4.2). In Poland, 75% of respondents have experience of full time study within an HEI, whereas in Latvia, all respondents have experience of full time study within  an HEI.   This is not the case in the UK, Italy or Denmark,  where  a smaller proportion have experienced HE. This demonstrates that academic assessments in WBL programmes are reflecting the needs of the workplace, irrespective of the prior experience of the learner in academic (i.e. HEI) study.

Approaches to assessment in the workplace

In the UK IT and healthcare  sectors,  transferable  or ‘soft’ skills  that will be useful in the workplace  predominate  as  assessed  items.  ‘Team  working  skills’  (83%),  ‘written communication  skills’  (76%),  ‘oral  communication  skills’  (66%),  ‘time  management’  skills (66%) all rate highly as assessed skills.  Perplexingly, ‘attendance’ (62%) also scores highly in the UK as an assessed item. In Poland, the picture is similar as the most assessed skills mentioned   are   ‘team   working   skills’   (88%),   ‘oral   communication   skills’   (77%),   and

‘attendance’  assessment  scores even  more highly  (65%)  than  UK. Similarly,  in Italy,  the most frequently assessed skills are ‘communication  skills’ (80%) and ‘attendance’ (60%). In Latvia, ‘attendance’  scores as highly (63%), as ‘time management’  (63%) and ‘general IT skills’ (60%). The importance placed on ‘attendance’ as an assessed skill is remarkable, but indicates the importance that employers across Europe place on this facet of an employee’s performance.

In the UK, the outstanding workplace assessment methods are ‘reports’ (92% of responses) followed by ‘observations’ (58%), with all other methods being much less frequent, with presentations receiving only 20% of responses and essays just 17%. In Poland, the most frequently reported assessment method used is also ‘reports’ (88%), but other methods are used   more   frequently,    with   ‘research    papers’    (50%),   ‘presentations’    (38%),   and ‘observations’  (38%) being the next most common. In Italy, the distribution of respondents between the answers is equal with ‘observations’, ‘presentations’, ‘examinations’, ‘multiple choice tests’ and ‘vivas’ featuring in equal measures. In Latvia, the most frequently reported assessment  method is also ‘reports’  (83%), followed  by ‘presentations’  (48%), and ‘vivas’ (39%).  These  findings indicate  that  workplace  assessment  approaches  and  methods  are notably common across the European Union and that the assessment of soft or transferable skills, rather than technical skills, predominates.

Measurement of work performance

In the UK IT and healthcare sectors, over 80% of respondents are assessed by their ‘line manager’; in Poland and Italy it is also the line manager who is responsible for assessing the learner’s performance at work. In Latvia, the indication is even stronger; in 93% of cases, it is  the  line  manager  who  assesses  work  performance,  and  in  5%  of  cases  it  is  work colleagues  or  peers.  In  the  UK,  the  largest  proportion  of  respondents  (86%)  identified

‘feedback from line managers’ as the primary measurement of their performance; however, ‘self-  awareness’  (79%)  and  ‘feedback  from  colleagues’  (76%)  were  also  common.  In Poland, respondents also mention ‘feedback from line managers’ (86%) as the most common method followed by ‘feedback from customers’ (59%), ‘self-awareness’  (55%) and ‘feedback  from  colleagues’  (55%).  In  Latvia,  respondents  mention  ‘feedback  from  line managers’ as being the most common (76%), followed by ‘self-awareness’ (69%), ‘feedback from colleagues’ (69%), and ‘feedback from customers’ (45%). The measurement of work performance  is  not  significantly  different  between  the  countries  in  the  study.  The  main measures used, i.e. the line manager and peer assessment, are appropriate for WBL programmes,  but it would need some imagination  to see how feedback from customers or clients could be used as a measurement  technique  while maintaining  sufficient academic rigour.

It comes across strongly from the research among learners in all partner countries that the learners   believe   that  employers   need   to  invest   time,   money,   and   effort   into  WBL programmes and relationships, and that this requires management, support, and encouragement.  In this respect, it follows that larger organisations  can take more of a risk and  be more patient in terms  of the return  they expect from WBL investments,  whereas SMEs often need an employee to be productive immediately. The lack of funding for ‘private’ external courses during the current economic crisis was mentioned as a barrier to initiating WBL programmes.


Trends in education: barriers and enablers

In 2009 Denmark spent the most on all levels of education as a percentage of GDP. By comparison, the UK and Latvia were slightly above the EU-27 average, and Poland and Italy were below this average. In fact, Denmark’s expenditure was double that of Italy. By 2011, Denmark and the UK were well ahead of the remaining countries in terms of the number of adults (i.e. aged 25-64) involved in education and training. The expenditure of Poland, Latvia and Italy was around half the average. The best conditions for WBL seem to be in the UK where HEIs are looking for alternative sources of revenue due to shrinking State expenditure on full-time education combined with government initiatives on adult education and training.


In line with international reform trends in higher education, the Danish university sector has undergone substantial changes and reforms during the last few years. The Government’s Globalisation Strategy focuses on increased access to higher education, stimulating the internationalisation of HE in Denmark and shaping more effective relationships between universities and the private sector. Consequently, Danish Universities are increasingly autonomous and their decision-making  capacity has been improved, balanced by increased financial responsibility, though this is sometimes linked to unnecessary administration that may interfere with strategic processes. To address the underlying contradictions, a high-trust strategy has been adopted,  in which the government  and authorities  set overall  strategic targets  and  leave  the  universities  to  decide  how  to  reach  them,  in  line  with  the  2003 University Act.

A very important  factor for the upgrading  of the level of education  in the Danish  tourism industry is political support, which can facilitate the introduction of WBL at HEI. One of the recommendations  that a number of tourism organisations  provide is to organise a national strategy with initiatives to boost skills development in order to train sufficient employees with the necessary skills. Danish regulation requires that learners who lack formal competencies from secondary education, can seek to obtain recognition of their skills through The Prior Learning Assessment System (Realkompetence  målings systemet), however, not many use the system because it is expensive. . EVA, the National Evaluation Institute of Denmark has conducted comparative research about the current design of the system and points to three main problems for HEIs:

  1. Prior learning is primarily recognized as giving access to educations and to a lesser degree as compensation for or shortening of training;
  2. Knowledge of the system is very limited among the population;
  3. The professionals that are conducting the assessments are not well enough trained for the task.

Another  barrier  to  the  deployment  of  the  PLAS  system  is  an  economic  one.  If  the competence assessments are made in relation to business goals that are not identical to the educational  goals, then it is outside what can be financed within the law and may not be practical for this reason alone.

It is evident that the autonomy of Danish HEIs can act as an enabler of WBL in Denmark. The number of adults involved in HEI in Denmark is sufficient to sustain a WBL sector in HE, and Government  policy favours access to HE in the adult sector. It is clear that WBL can have a future role in HE policy in Denmark. The barriers to such development could be the inflexibility implied by the tight administration processes. The cases from the Danish tourism sector indicate some important challenges for HE from the employers’ point of view. An important barrier is the costs for SMEs with a limited budget for educational  development. Another barrier is the information about the many alternative programmes and the resources needed in terms of time for employees  to engage in higher learning activities. The survey among employers within the tourism sector shows the need for learning to take place in the workplace. With this in mind, it is important to develop good co-operation between HEIs and the workplace. This confirms our assumption  that the training effort that should take place should largely focus on the employees´ social skills, also when it comes to the internal work environment in the workplace. But it also highlights the corporate responsibility to be aware of their own share in that students and employees may be included in the workplace.


Currently 20% of Italians aged 25-34 have HE qualifications, which is double the proportion of the 55-64 age group. This trend towards increasing qualification is especially notable in the case of females, whose graduate numbers have more than doubled from 2004-2010. However, this is still very low compared to the 40% target set by the ‘Europe 2020’ initiative, and more than two million young Italians are not in education or training – the highest figure in Europe. Retention  is a problem in Italy as almost two thirds of students (i.e. double the OECD average) drop out without completing their degree and young Italian students tend to progress slowly in their studies and almost two thirds of graduates exceed their normal completion  time.  In  Italy,  HE  programmes   are  largely  determined  by  the  Ministry  of Education,  and are thus not tailored to the needs of individual  students, though a certain amount of choice can be exercised through an individual study plan. A frequent criticism is therefore that little is done to encourage self-expression and personal development and educational methods are often held to be excessively didactic and not responsive to change. Universities are autonomous in the planning of courses, as each university establishes the title, objectives, general framework and credits and assessment procedures. Common objectives   and   general   criteria   are,   however,   defined   at  the   national   and   regional government level for all courses.

It appears that the employment and education climates in Italy are not conducive to WBL programmes.  The high failure rate of students and the poor retention rate at HEIs act as a barrier to the development of such programmes. This is compounded by the characteristic approach to learning and teaching of Italian HEIs, which does not promote such modes of learning. This will need to be overcome for WBL programmes to be viable on a wide scale in Italy.


In  Latvia  the  state  determines  the  number  of  study  places  in  HEIs  and  colleges,  by exercising the state budget. The number of study places is determined by the Ministry of Education and Science, and admission to study is subject to competition. The tuition fees for study places, which are not financed from the state budget, are covered by the students themselves, in agreement with the HEI. In 2010-2011, around two thirds of Latvian students paid for their own studies. In 2009, reforms to HE in Latvia affected HEI management. These led to significant changes which ensured the financing of HE in a ‘one sum’ manner, giving more  flexibility  to  funding.  In  order  to  increase  the  competitiveness  of  Latvian  HE,  the Ministry of Education  and Science launched  the ‘action plan for the necessary  reforms in higher education and science 2010-2012’.

WBL programmes are not found in Latvian HEIs due to ‘custom and practice’. It seems that the cost of study in Latvia may be acting as a barrier to HEIs developing WBL programmes across all sectors, though the recent increases in the flexibility of costing models may encourage Latvian HEIs to develop WBL programmes if demand for such programmes could be stimulated.


Polish  student  numbers  in HE are declining  by about  3% per  year, possibly  due  to  the declining   national   population.   Tuition   costs  in  Poland  are  relatively   expensive   as  a percentage of disposable income, although the student to staff ratio is about average for the EU at 18:1. The State Accreditation Committee (in Polish, PKA), which is the central body for the quality assurance of HE in Poland, has independent authority to assess the quality of education  in  individual   areas  of  study  and  to  provide  advice  to  the  Government   on applications to establish new HEIs or to establish new study areas. WBL initiatives would be included in this under accreditation procedures, in effect from 2002, affording such powers to the State Accreditation Committee. It is noted that although the number of HE students and the  number  of  new  graduates  each  year  has  sharply  increased,  graduate  employment remains high. The study indicates that this is due to the diversification of HE programmes, in particular the expansion of the vocational sector and the creation of HEIs in rural areas.

In Poland, partnerships are in place between HEIs and employers, especially those which enable professionals from industry to contribute to the delivery of programmes in vocational HEIs. In addition, examples  are found of offices in some HEIs to promote and administer liaison with employers. A few institutions have taken the opportunity granted by the 2005 legislation, and have established  an advisory council which includes external stakeholders such as local authorities and business representatives.  Finally, there is a National Network of Careers Offices, encompassing  the careers offices which have been established in most institutions. These provide guidance and counselling to students and graduates upon entry into  the labour  market.  They  provide  information  to  students  on  career  options,  links  to potential employers, and often some training in skills, too. Poland began work on its National Qualifications Framework in 2008, with the development of the National Qualifications Framework. This legislation has significant implications for WBL in the country.

Recent changes in HE legislation in Poland can act as enablers of WBL development across a wide range of educational sectors. The development of enabling functions linking business and industry with Polish HEIs is also likely to facilitate such development. With suitable guidance, the future of WBL initiatives in Poland seems promising.

United Kingdom

In  the  UK  HEI,  lack  of  resources  for  delivering  WBL,  such  as  suitably  qualified  and experienced staff, is seen as a major barrier to WBL delivery. The attitude of academic staff to WBL is clearly an issue, due to the contrast of WBL programmes to ‘normal’ academic delivery  patterns.  Both  academic  staff  and  their  managers  seem  to  feel  that  WBL  is demanding and labour intensive, and in some way beyond their normal contractual obligations. Attempts to overcome this issue include having a bank of Associates and buying out  staff  time.  The  latter  requires  a  lot  of  planning  in  advance  and  this  is  problematic because WBL is frequently required at short notice. Not having staff who have curriculum development  skills is an obstacle, as not all educators are good in developing curriculum. There is no clear steer on how much of this type of work staff should be doing, as opposed to standard teaching. In fact, the entire culture and systems of the University are thought to go against WBL provision which is not ideal because WBL can have a positive impact on all concerned. Universities also have to be more flexible as to how they take their product to market. Sometimes the delivery is not flexible enough.

There is some concern about understanding what exactly the employer wants, getting initial contacts and market intelligence  in terms of what employers  or sectors are looking to do, and  what their training needs are. Sometimes,  the employers  are not too sure what they want or need, and equally the teams putting it together are not able to devote an intensive chunk of time to getting it done. Although there are WBL targets, it is difficult to know how much they are required to do, the amount of time they should spend on it, which staff, and how many staff members should be involved. Instead of just having a target to generate a certain amount of income in this way, it needs to be something much more concrete. It is felt that until WBL and distance learning is recognised in the staff workload, regardless of how excited and willing to engage some staff members are, they may be reluctant to do so. Thus, teaching on WBL programmes needs to be treated as being comparable to teaching on traditional programmes.

WBL is something that all faculties in the UK HEI want to expand, as this is an area that can potentially  grow  whereas  many  other  areas  cannot  grow  at  the  same  rate.  However, delivering  a  programme  means  making  a  staff  member  available  who  may  already  be involved in other work within the faculty. University structures are considered to be a barrier. The general  perception  is that departments  are currently  trying to fit WBL into a system which is geared towards traditional, full-time students. While one suggestion is that WBL programmes  need to be less flexible to make them more in line with the current structure, the majority of interviewees believe that more changes are required to this existing structure. WBL programmes can start at any time in the year & finish at any time, so they do not necessarily follow the structure of the university academic year. Nevertheless, the university uses the same infrastructure  such as enrolment procedures, award boards etc. & these do not always fit in with the timescales that employers want.

Recommendations for future policy and practice in WBL

Based   on  research   in  the  five   partner   countries,   this   section   offers  a  number   of recommendations for the improvement of various aspects of WBL.

Curriculum design and delivery

Improved WBL curriculum design and delivery requires new operational models for WBL programming and costing, recognition of prior competencies and flexible credit systems and negotiated personal learner development. Most of all, WBL ‘brokers’ are needed to ‘build bridges’ between employers and HEIs. In turn, HEIs should offer more flexible and tailored courses instead of long programmes  of study. The courses must be relevant and meet the needs of the organisation.

HEIs’ ability to respond to employers’ requirements in a timely way due to a lack of flexibility concerning  delivery  mode  and  timing  and  delivery  capacity  is identified  as a key  factor inhibiting  the ability of HEIs to respond  in a timely manner.  It is recommended  that HEIs should  build  workforce  planning  activity  into  workload  planning  models  and  establish  a network  of  individual  associates  and  collaborative   provider  partnerships  to  ensure  an adequate ‘supply chain’ for delivery. There is a need to use practical experience at work to enhance academic skills development, to enable learners to apply theories and constructs in the workplace and to broaden the learners’ underlying knowledge and understanding.  Such outcomes should be agreed in negotiation between the learner, employer and HEI, and form the basis of a ‘learning contract’.

APEL can be seen as an essential foundation for successful WBL implementation.  In order to ensure its effectiveness the APEL process and related procedures need to be embedded in the HEI’s assessment policy and processes. The process should be recognised and understood by all staff and learners. HEIs require a more business-oriented  way of thinking and  acting.  A  real  challenge  to  HEIs  can  be  a  close  interaction  with  employers  in  a ‘partnership dialogue’ on program design, delivery and assessment. HEIs need to work out a suitable method of responding  to employer/employee  needs in an appropriate and a timely manner, which will build their reputation as a reliable partner. In order to achieve that, they need to establish a WBL contact point within the institution which will be dedicated to running the ‘dialogue’ with current and potential employers opting for this method of professional development of their employees.

HEIs need to develop mechanisms to profile tutors and select those who have the relevant competencies and are able to use specific WBL methods, and to ensure comparability of standards. HEIs also ought to ensure that employers understand the language of academic quality. It is important to provide feedback on quality issues to employers and learners in a timely  manner,  and facilitating  meaningful  dialogue  on the feedback.  Continuous improvement  necessitates  the  continuous  measurement  of  the  impact  of  the  WBL  on learners and employers,  and carrying  out cost-benefit  analyses  of WBL programmes  can assist with this. Informal strategies for competence development  can succeed in delivering job satisfaction and improving skills development.

Assessment of work performance

Assessments must be relevant to both competence-based and capability-based learning outcomes.   WBL   processes   need   to  align   with   professional   standards,   qualifications frameworks  and  employers’  own  standards  of  appraisal  and/or  assessment. Recommendations for improved work performance assessment include negotiated WBL curricula to enable organisations to exploit the ‘added value’ of WBL strategically. If HE WBL programmes   are  to  align  with  employer  needs,  HEIs  must  understand   the  employer perspective regarding workforce development objectives and the needs of assessment. A consultation phase is needed to create a collaborative assessment strategy. Academic knowledge  and skills need to be assessed  within academic  programmes,  but also a wide range of soft skills and behavioural characteristics have to be taken into account in the workplace. Academic assessment should therefore be adapted to the requirements and aspirations  of  employers  for  assessing  factors  related  to value-added  workplace performance such as ‘soft’ or interpersonal skills.

Viva voce examinations or interviews may be the most appropriate method of assessment in terms of validity,  reliability,  and authenticity  in WBL contexts.  However,  they require high levels of effort from assessors. The novel and innovative nature of WBL requires that non- traditional means have to be found for assessing it, yet which meet the needs of learners, employers, and HEIs. A balance is needed between competency-based assessment such as output; and process-based assessment such as reflection and self-direction. The aim of assessment  is  to  assure  quality  of  provision  and  achievement  in  relation  to  learning outcomes, and to develop the learner as a reflective practitioner. This must be done within appropriate quality benchmarks and professional standards with due regard for the authentic workplace setting. The use of traditional assessment methods, such as formal examination, may not be appropriate to the philosophy, educational objectives, and target audience and participants of WBL.

Employer engagement

Employers have a responsibility for providing a framework for the development of the employees’ personal and social skills. This requires sound cooperation between the HEI and the   employer.   It  involves   acknowledging   the   need   to   create   an   attractive   working environment,  which  can  help  retain  skilled  workers,  confirming  the  assumption  that  the training  effort  that  should  take  place  should  include  a focus  on  social  skills.  Employers should start the process of cooperation with HEIs by:

  • Carrying out  market  research,  formulating  a development  plan  through  customer needs, drafting a company strategy and an operational plan to continually improve employee performance;
  • Investigating how to finance the re-skilling training needed by employees and how to access Government and/or EU funding to support educational programmes;
  • Categorising rare or important employee skills and giving the workforce opportunities to identify their personal learning needs and performance improvement;
  • Setting up a culture of ‘growing talent’ for employees and the company itself; Participating in discussions, round tables, or online chats, focusing on their industry or regional area;
  • Facing up to barriers to WBL, such as the fear of employees leaving due to their increasing qualifications, or regarding expense as the main barrier to engaging with WBL;
  • Contacting suitable  HEIs  to  evaluate  possible  cooperation   methods  and  ‘build business’;
  • Looking at existing HEI curricula and comparing the learning objectives with the skills and competences needed for employees;
  • Defining individual  employee  development  plans,  selecting  workers,  and arranging jobs to optimise the potential of employees;
  • Being constantly  aware  of possible  changes  at national  and  EU level  concerning training models, such as WBL, funding opportunities and educational policies.

Engagement of academia

The key driver of HEI delivery is the championing of WBL at the senior level, i.e. Vice Chancellor,  Deputy Vice Chancellor,  or Pro-Vice-Chancellor.  This is critical for influencing the extent to which employer engagement or responsiveness is seen as a strategic priority.

Improved  engagement  of  academia  in WBL  requires  that  WBL  is seen  as a  source  for research and development.  Funds need to be directed to WBL staff, and business models for cross-faculty WBL units/teams may be advantageous. This requires major organisational changes in a typical HEI. A specialised unit in the HEI should be established, specifically working to build targeted WBL courses and find the suitable supervisors and mentors among the  population  of  teachers  and  researchers  from  different  departments  of  the  HEI.  The career structure  in HEI may be problematic.  There  is often little money or recognition  in being  an interdisciplinary  researcher.  To serve  the needs  of WBL,  it is crucial  that  staff members  are offered alternative viable career paths with equal recognition.  WBL requires HEIs  to  adopt  a more  problem-oriented  approach,  emphasising  the need  for  developing career paths that recognise interdisciplinary skills, as the role of tutor in WBL learning differs from the traditional teaching model.

It is also crucial to change the attitude among employees in HEIs. There is a tendency to see the   role  of  HEIs  as  providers   of  theoretical   education   rather   than  practical   career development. In order to bridge the gap between ‘traditional’ academic processes typically aimed  at the undergraduate  market,  and  the requirements  of WBL,  innovative  operating models, i.e. business models, are required which incorporate sales, marketing and business development,  with products and services that deliver on propositions  made to employers. These  should  include  offering  integrated  solutions  and  designing  solutions  with demonstrable business benefits. For most HEIs, successful employer engagement and employer relationships require a high level of flexibility. WBL needs to be clearly identified by HEI executives as a strategic priority for development, allowing it to communicate externally with the public and internally to the institution’s faculties, schools and departments. Such institutional  commitment articulated in an HEI’s strategic documents will make a visible link with other institution’s strategies. As a strategic priority, it will be reflected in the institution’s action plans, performance measures, reviews and improvement schemes.

The staffing issue seems to be critical for the WBL success to ensure that it includes  the right processes and procedures for staffing WBL programmes. WBL requires an appropriate mix of skills, knowledge, and business experience to which the recruitment, selection and workload allocation  processes  should give consideration.  Staff must be trained in areas in which they lack the necessary skills, or when their current skills need to be updated, so that the delivery of WBL is of a high calibre and learner support can be assured. In addition, WBL staff is confronted  with a variety of issues which call for professional development  and an interdisciplinary approach. Appropriate reward mechanisms must be in place in HEIs to recognise  staff  involvement  in  WBL.  In  case  of  lack  of  staff  capacity  internally,  due consideration should be given to recruiting specialist educators who have had mentoring or coaching experience as well as wider educational  experience. The ability to listen carefully and understand the complexity of the learner’s contexts is critical. The skills of supervision, mentoring and coaching are crucial for WBL academic advisors and facilitators in supporting and guiding the learner to frame their experience and knowledge in such a way as to both meet the academic standards and empower the learner to fully engage with new learning.

Reflection on the research

In our ambition to produce a more effective way of improving the skills and behaviours of work based employees, through the use of academic WBL programmes, we have achieved a partial success. Certainly our project has identified  what academic programmes  have to offer to workforce up-skilling, and our findings can contribute to the discussion of how WBL might be made more effective. This is, however, some way from ‘producing’ a ‘more effective way’ as we hoped. Nevertheless, we have produced evidence for the relevance and viability of the tripartite approach, and our findings show that employer and employee knowledge and confidence in WBL qualifications are improved when employer strategic objectives and staff development are linked, and academic curriculum is mapped to this. Our research into HEIs and the cultural and administrative barriers to effective WBL partnerships have essentially identified more questions than provided answers. This has led us to make the above recommendations  on  how to  improve  the  tripartite  relationship,  which  is  conducive  to  a robust WBL environment, in the future.

Our ambition to provide a platform for future collaboration between employers and HEIs for skills development  and for a broader range  of learners to be able to participate  in higher level qualifications will be dependent on our ability to disseminate our key messages to the target  audiences.  For many employers  this will be introducing  the concept  of negotiated learning – simply changing the mindset from ‘training’ to ‘education’, and forming a willingness  to begin a conversation  with Universities  around the theme  of work force up- skilling.   For  learners   the  key  message   will  be  about  opportunities   and   benefits   of development and education – the key principles of ‘lifelong learning’ bringing about benefits to the individual, the employer, and to society. For HEIs there are many messages, first in recognising  the changing  role  and  responsibilities  of  HEIs  and  the part  they play in the economic and social ‘health’ of their local and national populations. The message for these audiences  is  quite  focused,  and  must  be  tailored  to  their  interests.  Our  dissemination strategy   must  allow  a  sustainable,   post-project   legacy,   to  ensure   maximum   benefit.

As the project  progressed  it became  apparent  that the WBL experience  of each  partner differed  widely, and in particular,  the understanding  and application  of the concept  of the ‘negotiated, tri-partite approach’ covered a spectrum of experience, with the partners UK and DK having most experience of HEI employer partnerships of this type. There was also a suggestion that at an institutional level, ULO in POL was receptive to the concepts of NWBL, and may be at the start of a journey into this ‘arena’ using their extensive  industry links. Partners in IT and LAT had concluded however, that there were many national barriers to the implementation of this type of partnership, and that there was a considerable resistance to overcome before NWBL could become an accepted form of workforce up-skilling in their national context.

Nevertheless, during the life of this project it became clear that the benefits of a link between education, skills and labour force development had become widely accepted, and the need for  HEI  engagement  in  this  field  was  even  more  pressing.  While  there  are  undeniable economic pressures on educational  institutions across the EU, it is hoped that this project will demonstrate the value of adopting the EU approach on WBL below:

In order to ensure that the qualifications people obtain are actually of value to them on the labour market, and so that employers can employ people who possess the skills they need, cooperation between ‘work’ and ‘education and training’ should be much more  intensive  and  more  substantial.   These  two  worlds  need  to  address  and overcome existing barriers between them and understand that only a joint approach will deliver what people really need and want.…A more flexible, responsive education and training system is good for learners, good for employers, good for the economy and good for the community(ies)  it serves. It will help balance the labour market and ensure that individuals and employers acquire the skills they need (EU 2010).

Furthermore,  it is important  to  remember  that  our  goals  are  not  only  monetary.  Higher Education transforms lives, and it is worth keeping the following vision in mind: Our schools, universities, training and workplaces will foster equal opportunities, entrepreneurship, trust, co-operation, and a sense of responsibility, creativity and innovation   that  will  contribute   to  economic   prosperity,   societal   good,  engaged citizenship and personal well-being (EU 2010).


[1]  An Approach to Qualifications through Negotiated Work Based Learning for the EU Project. Number: 510022-LLP-1-2010-1-UK-ERASMUS-ECUE

[2]  Borup, R., Shah, H. (2012). The Aspirations and Achievements of WBLQUAL, an Erasmus Funded Project on Up-Skilling Work Based Learners Through Higher Education Qualifications. In: Proceedings of 5th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovations – ICERI2012, Madrid, Spain. 19-21 November, 2012

[3]  Ardizzone, L. (2012). Employers’ View on Work Based Learning – Results From WBLQUAL, an EU Funded Project. In: Proceedings of 5th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovations – ICERI2012, Madrid, Spain. 19-21 November, 2012 (this proceeding).

[4]  Anohina-Naumeca,  A., Sitikovs, V. (2012). Value Added Performance and its Recognition in the Workplace – Results From WBLQUAL, an EU Funded Project. In: Proceedings of 5th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovations – ICERI2012, Madrid, Spain. 19-21 November, 2012 (this proceeding).

[5]  Kornecki, J. (2012). Strategic, Tactical and Operational Considerations for Academia Involvement Into Work-Based Learning – Results From WBLQUAL, an EU Funded Project. In: Proceedings of 5th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovations – ICERI2012, Madrid, Spain. 19-21 November, 2012 (this proceeding).

[6]  Lindegaard, K., Voergård-Olesen,  R.K. (2012). Work Based Higher Learning (WBL) for the

Danish Tourism Sector In: Proceedings of 5th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovations – ICERI2012, Madrid, Spain. 19-21 November, 2012 (this proceeding).

[7]  Eardley, W.A., Borup, R., Chibelushi, C., Trigg, D. (2012). Work-Based Learning for Enhancing Employee Skills: Lessons From the Literature and Practice in UK HEI. In: Proceedings of 5th

[8]  Pritchard R and Shah H, Higher Education Academy, Better Together: sharing learning from workforce development projects across the UK Keynote, The Britvic IT Academy in Partnership with Staffordshire University: The Employer Perspective, May 2009, London).

[9]  Shah H (2008) Higher Level Qualifications Through Work-Based Learning, Invited workshop, UVAC 2008, York.

[10] EU (2010) New Skills for New Jobs: Action Now. Report by the Expert Group on New Skills for New Jobs. The European Commission.

WBLQUAL - An Approach to Qualifications through Negotiated Work Based Learning for the EU

[su_tabs active="1" vertical="yes"]What does it support [su_tab title="Objectives"]

The aim of WBLQUAL is to produce a more effective way of improving professional skills and behaviours of work based employees, through the use of academic work-based learning (WBL) programmes refining a method of providing qualifications for work based activity that will also produce benefits for employers in performance, behaviour and attitude of learners


[su_tab title="Activities"]

  • Research on Academia - Strategic, Tactical and Operational Considerations for Academia Involvement Into Work-based learning
  • Recommendations for the three target groups to implement innovative educational programmes, such as WBL


[su_tab title="Results"]


[su_tab title="Partners"]

  • Coordinator: Staffordshire University (United Kingdom)
  • Rigas Techniska Universitate (Latvia)
  • Uniwesytet Lodzki (Poland)
  • University of South Denmark (Denmark)


[su_tab title="Info & contacts"]

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Date of project: 01/10/2010 – 30/11/2012

DG of reference: DG EAC, Education and Training, Lifelong Learning Programme – Erasmus Multilateral