Approaching work and learning indirectly

Macintyre, Ronald and Thomson, Joan (2013). Approaching work and learning indirectly. In: RWL8 - 8th International Conference on Researching Work and Learning 2013, 19-22 Jun 2013, Stirling, UK.



This paper approaches work and learning indirectly. It is part of a mixed method longitudinal study that looks at the articulation from Higher National (HN) to part time Higher Education (HE). Since 2003 the Open University in Scotland (OU) has been collecting quantitative and qualitative data on students who have HN qualifications. This paper looks at the experiences of those students and the central place of work in those journeys.

The paper beings with a statistical overview. HN Students that come to the OU tend to be older, the majority are in employment, they tend to reside in more deprived areas, and are often motivated by career aspiration. Their HN qualifications tend to cluster around the applied subjects as do the subjects they chose with the OU (Engineering and Technology, Education, and Health and Social Care). The picture is of widening HE participation in applied subjects.

The paper then looks at the interview data from the 2011-12 study. Choosing a vocational pathway is not always determined by exam results (some had HE entry qualifications), expectations and opportunities are important. Critical incidents at the end of school (births and deaths) were part of that narrative, as were family expectations around the “safe place” provided by vocational pathways, along with the sense that HE study was not for them. Overall participants narrated “bumpy” interrupted transitions between education and employment. Stories that emphasised social and structural barriers, personal autonomy, and stories that seemed to call into question how useful it is to talk about definite transitions between education and employment.

The vocational focus of most HN study means it is normal to regard work as the natural place for learning. This focus on practice means participants think of competence as something that develops formally and informally at and through work after they “qualify”. Interviewees seemed to accept that there was no job or role for life. The paper also considers the motivations for engaging in HE study. For these students work remains the principal focus. Just like HN, part-time distance learning is considered a “safe place” as people can balance study and work. “Getting on” or “getting out” feature strongly. For example, participants found themselves in roles that required HE qualifications, and sought the security and “mobility” that aligning their experience with a qualification would bring. Many cited personal factors; they looked back to “missed opportunities” with regret. However, it became apparent that what starts as personal leads to reflections on career progression and change as studies progress. The paper concludes with some reflections on the ways that articulation between HN and part-time study widens participation in HE. For those in work it also destabilises notions of smooth or appropriate transitions, and questions the boundaries between the personal and the professional.

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