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Work-based learning and assessment during Covid-19

by Nick Mapletoft and Andy Price

This is one of a series of position statements developed following a conference on ‘Building the Post-Pandemic University’, organised on 15 September 2020 by SRHE member Mark Carrigan (Cambridge) and colleagues. The position statements are being posted as blogs by SRHE but can also be found on The Post-Pandemic University’s excellent and ever-expanding website. The authors’ statement can be found here.

The purpose of this blog is to provide an insight into how an alternative provider of higher education, an English private university centre (University Centre Quayside (UCQ)) specialising in work-based learning (WBL), continued to deliver to degree apprentices throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. WBL is a particular branch of higher education that is based upon work and should benefit the employer, which in itself creates tensions. The post considers the impact on apprentices, who work for different employers throughout England including NHS frontline workers, through remote tutorials and remote assessment. It also considers varying employer responses from abandoning or postponing apprentice starts, to maximizing the opportunity for off-the-job training for staff on furlough and starting a programme in specific response to the pandemic.  

UCQ delivers its fully integrated Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship (CMDA) and BA Hons in Professional Management via a modular approach, with subject specific modules lasting seven weeks. Each module consists of two days of taught sessions delivered by a Module Lead with up to twelve students in attendance, supported by one to one tutorials and work based assessment via a Professional Development Assessor. Whilst for most students the university campus is an inspiring and invigorating place to learn, it is not uncommon for WBL students to do most of their learning at work, or at a business venue. Up until February 2020 all taught sessions were delivered face to face at venues throughout England, tutorials were often conducted remotely, work-based assessment was undertaken at the employer’s premises.  

When the Covid-19 situation started to unfold, UCQ began successfully transitioning to 100% online delivery through the principles of user centred design (ease of use), Human Factors and agile team working. The curriculum itself was largely unchanged, however different pedagogical techniques were necessary to better facilitate online delivery. Module Leads continuously improved online delivery through an iterative process of continuous feedback  from students and their employers. 

For the delivery of remote lectures, UCQ initially set up additional GoToMeeting accounts, avoiding Zoom due to published security breaches. Some client (employer) firewalls prevented students from joining GoToMeeting sessions, and student feedback requested more virtual small group working and more interactivity between the learners (as we would expect in a normal physical learning environment). Scholars continue to debate the importance of the social setting and interaction on an individual’s learning, with classrooms typically being focused on some social interaction. Replicating a synchronous learning model with strong social and personal interaction is however one of the hardest aspects to replicate on-line. Microsoft Teams was considered to be the best solution to facilitate the desired interaction. All UCQ staff and students now have Microsoft Office 365 accounts including Teams. Teams benefits from additional privacy settings to obscure the background, where there was a potential safeguarding implication with children being home schooled through the lockdown and the Summer. The same technology was used to capture work-based assessments, for example observing a CMDA student chairing a virtual meeting.

Apprentices’ employers were impacted by Covid-19 in different ways depending on their market sector and the attitudes of their leaders. Those in the hospitality and some service industries were unable to work from home, with staff put on furlough. UCQ sought to continue to engage furloughed staff in the CMDA programme, maximizing the opportunity for off-the-job activities. One large employer in facilities management embarked upon a national apprenticeship promotional campaign to extoll the advantages of apprenticeships to their furloughed workforce. Other employers aborted their enrolments, some because the pandemic resulted in uncertainty or loss of staff, others, for example in logistics, because they became too busy as a result of an increase in workload. Some potential students postponed their enrolments whereas some accelerated their applications as they saw their employer investing in them for the next 40 months as a reassurance.

UCQ’s students have managerial responsibilities which they needed to maintain during Covid-19. This meant that they faced challenges studying as a degree student, whilst simultaneously facing new tensions in their professional existence. As working from home was adopted by those that could, our managerial students needed to adopt new virtual team leadership roles. Anecdotally students started to show a heightened interest in academic areas of leadership and remote working, quickly developing new managerial skills in response to the Covid-19 situation. A core principle of the CMDA being the relating of theory to practice, meant that students now needed to grasp the issues created by Covid-19 as they emerged. Some students fed back to UCQ staff that the CMDA programme had provided a welcome  intervention and stimulating area of focus throughout the pandemic. Others described how the skills and knowledge they had acquired were helping them to cope as managers through rapid application, contextualisation and critical reflection of new skills and knowledge. 

Some students asked for further consideration but there was no formal grading safety net and all modules still needed to be completed in full and on-time to ensure progression, as the CMDA standard needed to be met in full. However, a core principle of the UCQ CMDA delivery is to work with students in terms of the pressure of their extant management roles on their academic responsibilities and to have a responsive and flexible approach to successful assignment completion. This would also include a fair and equitable response to any issues of grade erosion. Close monitoring of attainment showed an overall increase in assignment marks and a continuous improvement in progression.

In an attempt to understand the effect on students, UCQ sought student feedback at the start of the pandemic and then after six months, whilst closely monitoring results and progression. Feedback showed a high level of satisfaction in the UCQ experience, with many students preferring the remote delivery model as it saved them travel time and expense, it also resulted in UCQ staff being easier to contact as they were no longer travelling long distances.

Summary of key findings

There are substantial differences in the way that employers have responded to the pandemic and the resulting effect on their investment in staff learning and assessment. Apprentices have responded differently too, with some having withdrawn from the programme, some postponed their start date, some have taken a break-in-learning, whilst the majority report to have been better able to focus whilst working from home and to have found studying on the CMDA a positive distraction (from Covid-19) and professional support in their new ‘crisis’ management roles.

Nick Mapletoft holds a professional doctorate from the University of Sunderland, and graduate and post graduate qualifications in computing, leadership and management, business and enterprise, and education. His post-doctoral work centres on work-based learning (WBL) approaches and pedagogies, and the WBL university. He is the Principal and CEO of the University Centre Quayside, an approved boutique provider of higher education via degree apprenticeships.

Andy Price has over twenty years’ experience in higher education and is presently Programme Leader for the CMDA at UCQ. He has held various academic and leadership roles elsewhere in the sector including Head of Enterprise Development and Education at Teesside University and Assistant Director of the Institute of Digital Innovation. Andy is a long-standing champion of work-based learning and has led significant curriculum development in this area

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Asserting the nation: the dominance of national narratives in policymakers’ constructions of higher education students

by Rachel Brooks

In 2010, the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) came into being. It represents an attempt to standardise many aspects of higher education across the continent to facilitate the movement of staff and students across national borders, and ensure that the region of Europe is a competitive player in the global market for higher education. Scholars have suggested that it has tended to foreground values more commonly associated with an Anglo-American model of higher education (such as marketisation and competition) rather than those that have traditionally underpinned higher education in continental Europe (including collegial structures of governance and the autonomy of academic staff). It is thus often argued that higher education systems across Europe are becoming more similar, with greater homogeneity observed in their approaches to teaching, methods of governance, and underpinning values.

This blog draws on interviews with policy influencers in six countries (Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain) to consider the extent to which convergence is evident among the policy community within Europe, particularly in relation to how they understand higher education students. Do they, for example, see all higher education students, wherever they study in the EHEA, as broadly similar, or do they differentiate between those in their own nation-state and other parts of the continent? Analysing such discourses employed by policy actors is important, not only in teasing out the extent to which European higher education is indeed homogenising and whether distinctions are made between students of different national origins, but also because the language used by policymakers can have a significant impact on the ways in which social groups are understood and society more generally is shaped.

It was striking in many of the interviews that distinct ‘national narratives’ were drawn upon quite frequently by policy influencers to explain what were believed to be key characteristics of higher education students from their particular country – even if the available empirical evidence suggests that the characteristics were, in practice, shared by students in many other parts of Europe. An example of this is the construction of students as employment-focussed.

A common theme across the dataset was that, over recent decades, students had become increasingly employment-focussed. This was evident, for example, in national policy documents where the construction of the higher education student as a ‘future worker’ was a common trope across all six countries. Policy influencers also talked at length about how the role of the student had increasingly come to be understood in relation to the labour market, and how steps had been taken to provide better information to prospective students about employment destinations and earnings of graduates from their chosen discipline, with the intention of guiding them towards degrees perceived as having better economic returns. However, while such themes were common across the six countries, they were typically discussed and explained in national terms, often with reference to very specific national histories.

In Ireland, for example, the close relationship between higher education and employment was discussed by several interviewees. In the first extract below, a civil servant responsible for higher education policy explains this in terms of Ireland’s experience of unemployment:

Ireland’s very big on employment [within higher education policy] you see because we’ve had such a long history of unemployment and under-employment, it’s deep in the policy DNA here, in a way it mightn’t be in other countries.  Like we are all about how do we get jobs, how do we keep jobs, how do we fill jobs! How do we … that’s our central core mission.

Notable here is the comment she makes about the likely difference from other nations. She goes on to say that this relationship between education and work is not contested in Ireland because of the manner in which it has been viewed historically, and the national consensus about the labour market gains that follow from higher education. These sentiments were echoed by others. Two other Irish interviewees emphasised the way in which education was a key part of the nation’s history and culture, not least because it was seen as the most effective route out of poverty and into well-paid employment. The perceived distinctiveness of the Irish experience was thus often explicit in many of these narratives.

The Polish respondents also commented on the close relationship between higher education and employment but, in this case, it was not always evaluated entirely positively. A government interviewee believed that Polish students focussed primarily on the labour market outcomes of their study, and that this differentiated them from their Western European counterparts:

I think that the Polish student population, perhaps along with the student populations of other post-Communist countries, are markedly different than their counterparts in, in Western Europe where the markets, you know, this whole capitalism thing has been for hundred … for decades! And [in Western countries] … this attitude towards finding your … your success on the labour market perhaps is not as pronounced. 

He believed that Poland’s relatively late embrace of capitalism explained the keenness of Polish students to secure well-paid jobs on graduation and think of their higher education almost exclusively as a period of labour market preparation. Another government interviewee drew on a somewhat similar comparison to explain Polish students’ attitudes. As far as he was concerned, students’ expectations about the jobs they should be taking up on graduation were far too high, and they were often reluctant to work their way up within organisations. These were again attributed to Poland’s recent economic and political history:

In my opinion, the[ir] demands are too high. It might be because of the opening of the Polish borders after the fall of the Communist regime. When I was a student in the 1990s, it was not so easy to cross the border as a student and to spend one year or six months abroad. Now it is, and the living standard is of course much higher in Western countries, and being able to look at a better life – it might be the reason why students have become more demanding.

Thus, while Irish and Polish interviewees remarked upon very similar trends among their student populations – trends that were evident in the other four nations, too – these were explained through national narratives, emphasising the distinctiveness of their particular historical trajectory. Discussion of wider transnational influence was notably absent.

The recourse to ‘national narratives’ such as these (of which we have several other examples in our dataset), is significant because of the light it sheds on understandings of the EHEA. Despite assertions about the increasing convergence of higher education systems across Europe, the policy actors’ narratives suggest that, in some cases, national frames of reference have not yet been usurped by European ones. They are also significant because of the ways in which they conceptualise students. Words do more than name things, they impose limits on what can be said, and construct certain possibilities for thought. Thus, the emphasis on students as distinct from those in other parts of Europe may have a bearing on how they are understood by other social actors, and by students themselves.

Rachel Brooks is Professor of Higher Education in the Institute of Education at University College London. She is an executive editor of the British Journal of Sociology of Education, a member of the Governing Council of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and a member of the assessment panel for REF 2021 (sub-panel 23: Education).

This blogpost is based on an article recently published in Sociological Research Online. It draws on data from the Eurostudents project, funded by the European Research Council, through a Consolidator Grant to Rachel Brooks (grant number: 681018_EUROSTUDENTS).