Recognising knowledge gained at work helps empower and liberate individuals, which is why universities must get involved, say John Brennan and Brenda Little
It has been estimated that about 20 per cent of today's UK higher education students undertake some form of workplace learning as part of their courses. In the rest of Europe, the proportions are much higher - about 48 per cent, according to the Flexible Professional in the Knowledge Society (Reflex) project, funded by the European Commission's Sixth Framework programme, which involved partners from 15 European countries. These higher levels of participation reflect the greater professional emphasis on higher education in many European countries.
Within the so-called knowledge society, higher education institutions are having to reconsider the boundaries between education and other areas of social and economic life, in relation to knowledge production (research) and knowledge transmission (teaching and learning).
In the latter, boundaries are becoming blurred between knowledge and skills acquired in higher education and those acquired in other contexts, including employment.
In a recent report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England, we tried to indicate the wide range of forms that workplace learning can take in relation to higher education. Alongside traditional sandwich degree placements, professional postgraduate courses and foundation degrees lies a range of initiatives that can allow workers to gain recognition for workplace learning as a higher education entry qualification, or as credit towards the achievement of an academic award, or for the award of a special university certificate or diploma in its own right. But there is much workplace learning that is never recognised. Well over half of supposedly full-time undergraduates do 15 or more hours of paid work every week. Is this an addition to, or a detraction from, what is learnt while in higher education?
The different forms of workplace learning involve learners, employers and higher education institutions in different ways. Learners can be at different stages in the course and can have different learning objectives, some more explicit than others. Workplace learning is sometimes valued because it provides a different route to learning things already present within the higher education curriculum and sometimes because it facilitates the learning of different things.
Most work is largely learnt "on the job". Formal education may provide a foundation for this learning and, for some jobs, a significant amount of the knowledge and skills necessary for job performance. Most higher education that provides specialist occupational preparation has always contained elements of workplace learning in its curriculum. Examples include the medical and legal professions. But today a much larger part of higher education is concerned with workplace learning in some shape or form. To an extent, this reflects the larger employability agenda of government policies towards higher education. Arguably, it also reflects changing forms of knowledge and the increased emphasis upon its application.
Higher education clearly has no monopoly on learning or on knowledge. What is to be gained from giving academic recognition to learning achieved outside the walls of academe? And what are the criteria that should be applied to the recognition of such learning?
Learning that occurs in educational institutions generally brings some credential with it, which makes it "portable" between jobs. Much of the learning that occurs in the workplace may be applicable only to that particular workplace, although some of it will be potentially transportable. This sort of learning is traditionally found in the "experience" section of a person's CV. But it is increasingly recognised or accredited as part of educational credentials. So one central criterion might be the transferability of learning outcomes beyond the workplace where they were acquired.
A key question is how formalised "learning on the job" and for the next job need to be. And what should be the role of higher education, if it has one? From an individual learner's point of view, the added value conferred on learning by the award of academic credentials may lie in enhanced recognition and status and improved career prospects in and beyond the immediate work setting. For the employer, explicit external recognition of workplace learning may act as a guarantor of standards and may enhance employees' self-esteem and commitment. From higher education's point of view, there is a potentially lucrative market of additional learners. And to ignore it could lead to an increasingly marginal role for higher education in a knowledge-based economy.
But workplace learning is not only about work. It is also about equity and social justice. By credentialing learning that has occurred outside the walls of higher education, the recognition of workplace learning can enhance status and extend opportunities for workers who never gained access to traditional forms of higher education. By emphasising "what you know" rather than "where you learnt it", workplace learning has definite egalitarian implications.
It follows that workplace learning is not just about learning work-related skills. Life experience can teach many lessons. Universities are increasingly recognising this through personal development planning and other forms of recognition for extracurricular learning.
In part for these reasons, workplace learning can be a source of tension between learners, employers and higher education institutions. Some employees use workplace learning as part of an exit strategy from their current jobs. By giving credentials for workplace learning, both knowledge and the person who knows it become more easily portable, which is not necessarily in the interests of the current employer.
The interests of employers are often in equipping their employees with specific competences needed to do their current jobs. But employees may be more concerned with their longer-term careers, which may well involve personal change and development. These concerns might be at odds with the interests of employers. Higher education sits sometimes uncomfortably between these two sets of interests. But ultimately, in providing the potentially portable credential, it acts on the side of the employee to enhance life opportunities, aspirations and personal competences.
John Brennan and Brenda Little, Centre for Higher Education Research and Information, the Open University.