Work-based higher education and skill utilisation, examining the interaction between the academy and the workplace

Edmond, Nadia and Reeve, Fiona (2011). Work-based higher education and skill utilisation, examining the interaction between the academy and the workplace. In: 7th International Conference on Researching Work and Learning (RWL 7), 4-7 Dec 2011, Shanghai, China.



In the UK, as elsewhere, employers are urged to invest in workforce development to increase competitiveness (DfEE 2005; DIUS 2007). Policy makers have argued that demographics in the UK require the existing workforce to be ‘up-skilled’ through part-time and work-based learning (WBL) including via new vocationally-based foundation degrees (FDs). However, in a climate of financial constraint, higher education (HE) is increasingly viewed as an investment in the skills of the workforce or individual, raising questions regarding the effectiveness of that investment - particularly given evidence that increasing the supply of HE level skills may not be sufficient to improve an organisation’s productivity and performance (Scottish Government 2008). Recent analyses recognise that demand for new skills, deriving from work design and opportunities to deploy skills are critical factors. Consequently, we need greater understanding of the relationship between learning practices, the context of the workplace and the potential role of HE WBL in skills utilisation.
Public sector workforce development in England has been shaped by the ‘modernisation’ agenda resulting in significant shifts in workforce organisation and the creation of many new ‘intermediate’ roles (Edmond and Price 2009). In this paper, we address the conference theme of ‘Learning Theory, Skills and Work’ and consider Cultural Historical Activity Theory in examining the relationship between HE WBL programmes, individual learner/worker agency and developing professional identities and work organisation and skill utilisation. We argue that a more nuanced understanding of the potential of HE WBL practices to support skill utilisation in the workplace is needed to critically examine policy assumptions. Drawing on public sector examples, we suggest that HE WBL has the potential to be instrumental in shaping identities at work and can have a distinctive role to play in mediating social practices in the workplace to support demand for skills and hence skill utilisation.

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