Learning on the job should be part of studying

June 29, 2007

Put part-time employment on the student curriculum, says Mantz York in a series on new ideas for higher education

The part-time job has long helped undergraduates make ends meet. But such work could play a more significant role yet. Higher education in the UK does not exploit student employment to the extent that it could. Carefully constructed curricula could turn such work into a rich source of degree-level learning experiences and enhance graduate employability.

The recent Leitch report recalled the Government's desire for further developments in higher education that avoided replication of current provision. Foundation degrees and other ways of linking higher education and employers are two responses. Part-time employment could contribute to a third response.

Many students find it necessary to undertake such work in order to fund themselves through higher education. As a recent survey of first-year experience indicated, those entering from less privileged backgrounds often find the need more pressing. This can cause problems - the greater the amount of part-time employment, the greater the threat to the student's academic achievement.

Nevertheless, many institutions give credit for a limited amount of employment-relevant activity such as work placements, volunteering and mentoring. An alternative approach is to accredit such activity outside the degree programme, either by a separate institutional award or by an award from an external organisation.

Why not go further? There is considerable potential for developing programmes in which students' part-time employment could provide an experiential enrichment for academically rigorous studies in areas such as organisational and individual psychology, sociology, management and finance. This could be subsumed under a title such as "work-related studies" and form a coherent part of a joint or combined-studies first-degree programme, or perhaps of a more generic foundation degree programme than was envisaged when that qualification was launched.

It would offer, for those who wished to follow such a route, the opportunity to gain their award in minimum time - a matter of significance for those for whom debt is a particular concern. At the same time, students would be developing the qualities and capabilities that many employers say they want when making appointments.

About half of the advertisements for graduate-level jobs do not specify a subject discipline. The message of such advertisements seems to be: "We expect graduates to have developed a range of qualities and capabilities that will enable them to make a useful contribution to our organisation; the specifics of training for the job are our responsibility." Or, as the Dearing report noted a decade ago, employers tend to value "rounded but adaptable people who can successfully tackle a range of tasks and be effective members of a team".

For a variety of reasons, a programme containing a strand of "work-related studies" would not be every student's preference, but it might be attractive to sufficient numbers to make it a viable proposition in some institutions.

Some academics might see a programme including a substantial commitment to "work-related studies" as a threat to their own disciplines. It need not be so, since further study could be done in their particular disciplines at a later time, perhaps for an advanced qualification. A lifelong learning perspective implies a flexible approach to the way in which people choose to build up their expertise.

The introduction of programmes containing "work-related studies" is challenging in a number of respects.

First, it implies a curriculum design in which the pedagogic approach is responsive to students' experiences in their workplaces and a robust academic foundation is incorporated. Traditional approaches to teaching would be inadequate for a learning environment that would necessarily involve some form of action learning. The implications for curriculum design, pedagogy and assessment are not trivial.

Second, there is a need to resolve ethical issues wherever workplace experiences are brought into an academic domain for analysis and evaluation. Third, the likelihood is that programmes of the kind envisaged here would be taken up by students for whom financial considerations are to the fore, and by institutions whose missions emphasise service to the relatively disadvantaged. Such programmes could be accorded an inferior status, especially if - as one might anticipate - some commentators inveigh against "degrees in shelf-stacking".

Fourth, and of critical importance, would be the response from the labour market. If graduates from such programmes were to be perceived by employers as possessing the qualities and capabilities that they desire then this would give the programmes external credibility. It would also do a lot to dispel any fears that they were inferior.

Current political rhetoric emphasises the importance of employer engagement in higher education. One way in which employers could engage is to give serious support to developments along the general lines sketched in this article. Are they, in the vernacular, "up for it"?

Mantz York is visiting professor at Lancaster University.

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