Emboldened and enlivened

May 11, 2007

Students at Chester University's Work through Learning programme have gained more than just a qualification, says Alison Utley, some of them have found a new lease of life

I haven't done any studying for 30 years. It's given me back my confidence and self-esteem. I'd recommend Learning through Work to anyone, at any time of life. It isn't study for study's sake, it's study with a purpose."

This is the verdict of one satisfied customer at Chester University's Work-Based and Integrative Studies Programme, which devises individually customised study programmes delivered to students, primarily in their place of work.

The point of the programme is its relevance to students' day-to-day work. Chester has a number of large clients, including the Civil Service and the Royal Air Force. In addition, more than 100 clinical and administrative staff at Arrowe Park Hospital on the Wirral are studying for diplomas and degrees at Chester. Few of them would have the time to study in the normal way by coming on to campus, even if they wanted to.

The students work at their own pace and level using projects from their work to count towards their qualification, according to David Perrin, manager of the professional development unit in Chester's School of Lifelong Learning.

"We have people from many different walks of life," he says. "Medical secretaries, for instance, nurses, even consultants. Some are undergraduates, others are postgraduates. Many thought they would never be able to study for a university qualification, which gives us a wonderful opportunity to work towards our widening-participation goals."

With so many students from one organisation, Chester is able to bring in associate tutors who are specialists, from the hospital or elsewhere, to teach particular modules. The programmes they teach combine taught, work-related modules with accreditation of prior learning, which has often taken place naturally within the work place. "The range of subjects students choose to study is quite wide," Perrin says. "So while a hospital administrator might struggle to demonstrate the relevance of, say, a history module, computer studies is likely to be a relevant option."

While there is some face-to-face learning in the early stages, much of the programme is studied in the workplace or at home. This gives students a high degree of responsibility for their own learning. Each individualised programme of learning is devised with input from the students and their employer.

Hospital manager Cathy Thompson, who helped set up the programme, stressed the importance of the employer's input into the design of the courses. "By doing this, we know that we impart the latest thinking and techniques to our staff, which not only allows them to perform better at work but also contributes towards their qualifications. It's an excellent programme, and the way it is set up gives both the hospital and our staff so much flexibility."

Anne-Marie Littlewood from Oldham is a diet and fitness consultant who studied for a degree at University College Chester while continuing to work.

"You set your own timescales and studying routine," she says. "You work at your own pace, in a comfortable environment, without having to go out of the house, so it fits around your family life as well. You tailor your course around what you want to use it for, so it applies directly to your job."

Littlewood focused on nutrition and weight management, aiming to further her career into support consultancy. "The fees were reasonable because it's a 'pay-as-you-go' degree, and you can do it in a longer time to suit you financially," she says. "The pressure's taken away. Not having to go to lectures is great, too."

Gaining accreditation for her previous qualifications and experience, which counted towards her degree, was also a big plus point. "It meant that I flew through the first level in a matter of weeks and then did the second level in about six months," she says. "Pressures of work meant it took longer to finish the next level. But that's one of the beauties of learning through work - it doesn't matter."

Students get help from their tutor, and a "buddy system" operates as a form of peer support for leaners. "Learning through work has benefited my work a lot, it's crystallised a lot of what I do and honed it," Littlewood adds.

"I've now graduated with a BSc in nutrition and weight management, and I plan to start a masters next year. The degree will give me the kudos that just being a franchisee doesn't do. I've been quite emboldened and enlivened by the whole thing. To do it in your own time, in your own subject, at your own pace, with support is really valuable."

A typical programme will begin with "self-review and negotiation of learning". This allows students to undertake a self-audit so that previous learning through day-to-day workplace activities can be rewarded academically. It also provides the opportunity for an individual "needs analysis" so that a customised programme of study can be drawn up.

Students then follow their individually tailored study programme, which can include a module on work-based research methods. Negotiated programmes may include taught modules from different discipline areas, combined with projects in the workplace. Perrin says popular modules include conflict transformation, effective workplace teams, transition and change management, communication skills and stress management.

To gain an undergraduate degree, the learner needs to pass 24 modules. Postgraduate degrees contain 12 modules. There are no formal entry requirements for undergraduate programmes.

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