Foundations for success

May 11, 2007

Employers and employees both profit from well-designed work-based degree programmes, argues Derek Longhurst

Foundation degrees integrate work-based learning into higher-level academic programmes. Work-based learning opportunities that are supported by direct employer engagement in the design and, where appropriate, in the delivery of the programme are what make the foundation degree distinctive from other qualifications.

It is essential that work-based learning is integral to the design of the foundation degree as a qualification. It is not a supplementary adjunct or a "bit of workplace experience". While there is no one definition of work-based learning that is applicable to all sectors, it is essential that the approach to work-based learning in foundation degrees is creative and clearly designed in terms of shared, understood objectives and outcomes that can be assessed at degree level. It requires support through mentoring and consistent management by the employers and the higher education institutions providing the qualification.

Work-based learning is often represented as the means for acquiring specific, probably short-term, job skills required by employers. But, as befits a higher-level qualification, work-based learning within a foundation degree requires a significant additional challenge in developing knowledge and understanding beyond the capacity to do a particular job. It equips people with a broader capability for exercising critical reflection, analysis and judgment so that they develop their potential for adaptability and enhance their productivity.

In this context, work-based learning is a two-way process of interaction between the academic study programme and higher-level learning in the workplace. Both are environments in which knowledge and understanding are developed, as well as generic and specific technical skills. In this way, the foundation degree delivers what it promises: a "foundation" for future employability and lifelong learning in rapidly changing economic and social circumstances.

The foundation-degree experience offers benefits for all stakeholders. For the students, it provides an opportunity to gain a degree through an attractive option of combining work and study. For many individuals today, the conventional concept of the "student" (full time, on campus, living away from home) is neither feasible nor desirable. A different kind of curriculum, less confined by academic subject boundaries and more informed by professional frameworks of employment practice, has relevance and attractions for many people. Indeed, a significant minority of foundation degree participants have a higher education qualification and see the foundation degree as a development option.

Research shows that the foundation degree, especially in its part-time mode, draws people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education, thus contributing to diversity and widening participation. In this, the work-based learning opportunity is central. There is evidence from younger students that they see work-based learning as distinctive and engaging, and that it provides the opportunity to develop a relationship with a potential employer.

As low-skilled, low-paid employment declines during the next decade, it will be important to ensure that there are relevant and distinctive options for higher-level educational qualifications that prepare people for the patterns and demands of future employment.

And what is in it for employers? Surely supporting work-based learning will cost them money? The equation that needs to be explored here is whether the real but sometimes hidden costs of not engaging in workforce education and training do not greatly outweigh the costs of providing support for workforce development. All the evidence points to the high impact of knowledge, understanding and skills on productivity and on companies' capacity to diversify in response to market requirements.

This is the reason for foundation degrees occupying a central role within the Government's higher education strategy. This policy emphasises co-funded programmes through which universities and colleges will create partnerships with employers, with each contributing to the costs of delivery. As the Leitch review of skills argues, this will require an understanding of specific benefits to all the participants in such partnerships and an acceptance that they share responsibility for the development of economic and social stability and cohesion through higher education.

Work-based learning will be central to the success of this strategy. But it is already going beyond the stage of being a gleam in the eye. As the case studies on two very different organisations, Tesco and the Royal Air Force, show, it is becoming a practical option for employees and employers.

Derek Longhurst is chief executive of Foundation Degrees Forward Details: www.fdf.ac.uk

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