A cut above

May 11, 2007

Derby's Learning through Work scheme has helped hundreds of people from engineers to hairdressers gain qualifications. Matthew Baker reports

If we are to extend the value of higher education into the very heart of our communities," argues David Young, Derby University's head of flexible learning, "then we need to change employers' perceptions of what higher education is. Too often they just see it as a supply-side model. People come to university and we put knowledge in their head. It's important that we explain the transformative side of learning."

Derby's Learning through Work team, which won the 2006 Times Higher Award for Most Imaginative Use of Distance Learning, has gone about blazing a trail in addressing the needs of a new demographic. In 2005-06, more than 400 people in the UKgained higher-level qualifications or credits through learndirect or Learning through Work courses. Some 340 of them were at Derby.

"Most of these people are over 35," Young explains. "Typically, they were not able to study when they were younger because they went straight into work. Over the years, they will have gained a lot of knowledge through their work experiences but this might not translate into the salary or promotion they feel they deserve, because they are lacking a degree."

John Blundell, a senior design engineer at the Derby-based global engineering company Alstom, was one such. He gained an MSc in combustion, fuels and performance modelling through a Derby Learning through Work programme last year and was promoted to principal engineer after completing his course.

"I wanted to extend my technical skills and develop my career," he explains, "and the next level meant studying for an MSc. Learning through Work enabled me to create a course based on what I do on a day-to-day basis and to follow it without leaving my desk."

Working with a mentor at Alstom and a tutor at Derby, Blundell was able to design modules based on his work. "Rather than being restricted to modules that were available and following something irrelevant just for the sake of it, I could tailor each section of my course to my own and Alstom's needs,"

he explains. "The software I critically analysed predicts levels of unburnt carbon in ash when firing a range of world coals. This analysis enabled me to gain an understanding of the fundamental principles and methods adopted. As well as being great for me, it has been of benefit to the company, too."

Salon owner Michael Myciunka, 40, from Bradford, gained a first-class degree in applied business development through a Learning through Work programme.

"A couple of years ago, I did some work as a freelance consultant for a product house," he says. "They were asking me how to recruit good staff and how to offer incentives to motivate them. I had advice and experience to offer, but I realised I didn't have the academic background to substantiate what I was saying." One area he was eager to accumulate knowledge in was change management. "Hairdressing is very much part of the fashion industry, which, by definition, is in perpetual emergent change," he explains. "There is constant demand to keep up with the latest styles. Salon owners and managers tend to achieve their positions because they're very good stylists, which means they're in constant demand as practitioners. This limits the time they can give to managing staff and developing their businesses."

Myciunka says that "blended learning" using e-learning and tutor support is the only way he could continue to run a business alongside part-time study.

"It's demanding, but that doesn't mean it needs to be unpleasant," he reflects. "I can take my laptop to a coffee shop on a Sunday and connect wirelessly to electronic journals and resources via the university's learning centre."

Such flexibility is bound to attract its share of sceptics. With people graduating without ever setting foot on campus, are rigorous academic standards being applied? "Everything we do is located within the Quality Assurance Agency framework for higher education," Young stresses. "We have our own external examiner and subject auditor, and the standards are as rigorous as on any other degree. The difference is that we're using that framework to plan a personalised curriculum. We're responding to one of the key lessons that's starting to emerge, which is that you ignore learners at your peril."

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