Devolution revolution

May 11, 2007

The big challenge is to adapt to new ways of educating people while maintaining standards, claims Sa'ad Medhat

Work-based learning is redefining both the workplace and the classroom. Government policy must adapt to the new reality that it can help devolve power and funding while maintaining standards - a conundrum for all public services, not just education.

Some higher education fields, especially engineering and technology, are finding that portfolio-based learning, a less complete version of work-based learning, offers unique advantages to students who are also employees. These learners combine formal modules with self-directed learning and accredited prior learning.

Work-based learning includes learning from undertaking paid or unpaid work, including learning for work (work placements), learning at work (in-house training) and learning through work (professional development), linked to formally accredited education programmes. This broad remit shows that, for higher education, work-based learning can be a means of overcoming economic and practical restrictions. From employers, there is growing demand for increased knowledge and skills renewal.

Learners require a better co-ordinated approach that blends the needs of employers, employees and students. Investment, recognition and promotion are the main challenges. This requires that the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Trade and Industry and, ideally, the Treasury lead from the centre, with the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Quality Assurance Agency, sector skills councils, regional development agencies, learndirect and Foundation Degree Forward supporting in practical ways. And universities and colleges must change to deliver on the ground.

Government should consider specific spending to encourage work-based learning. In addition, "third-leg" funding designed to encourage university links with communities and businesses requires urgent review. One priority is to provide incentives to support staff development in fostering better relationships with industry and to boost the capability of business development units in universities to build work-based learning work.

Recognition and accreditation are perhaps the trickiest obstacle. Academic standards need to be defined, benchmarks identified and levels set. This should be the remit of a Hefce-led steering group on assessment, including the structured development of foundation degrees and learning contracts.

Getting this right will help to solve many other issues. Recognition will help attract funding; and questions, mainly from academics, over the equivalence of work-based learning to academic degrees will lift. Accreditation will also make selling work-based learning easier.

Last December's Burgess Group report on measuring student achievement favours a permissive framework over prescription, integrated with national credit arrangements and rating.

Higher education has been central to the Government's vision of economic growth and social justice. To remain so, the number of places at which employee-students learn must expand; 55 per cent of starting undergraduates are 21 or older; 45 per cent study part time. Employer demands mean that more people are returning to higher education through the workplace or flexible studies.

Sa'ad Medhat is founder and chief executive, New Engineering Foundation.

The Path to Productivity: Work-Based Learning Strategies in Engineering Higher Education Programmes : http:///
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