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.
LEARNERS’ / EMPLOYEES’ VIEWS
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.
HIGHER EDUCATION INSTITUTIONS’ VIEWS
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:
- Prior learning is primarily recognized as giving access to educations and to a lesser degree as compensation for or shortening of training;
- Knowledge of the system is very limited among the population;
- 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.
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.
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).
Reference: An Approach to Qualifications through Negotiated Work Based Learning for the EU Project. Number: 510022-LLP-1-2010-1-UK-ERASMUS-ECUE  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  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).  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).  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).  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). 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  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).  Shah H (2008) Higher Level Qualifications Through Work-Based Learning, Invited workshop, UVAC 2008, York.  EU (2010) New Skills for New Jobs: Action Now. Report by the Expert Group on New Skills for New Jobs. The European Commission.
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
- 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
- Comparative Report – University culture and academic issues
- Comparative Report – Learners’ view on work based learning
- Comparative Report Employers’ View On Work Based Learning
- The aspirations and achievements of WBLQUAL
- WBL for enhancing employee skills – Lessons from the literature and practice in a UK HEI
- Work based higher learning (WBL) for the Danish tourism sector
- Value added performance and its recognition in the workplace
- Strategic, tactical and operational considerations for academia involvement into work-based learning
- Employers’ view on work based learning
- Coordinator: Staffordshire University (United Kingdom)
- Rigas Techniska Universitate (Latvia)
- Uniwesytet Lodzki (Poland)
- University of South Denmark (Denmark)