Opinion piece - Working for an education

Thursday 28 March 2019

Professor John Harper
Writing in the Press and Journal, RGU Principal, Professor John Harper, reflects on how the education sector is responding to changing skills needs through new methods of teaching and learning, with a greater emphasis on the workplace to upskill and retrain employees.

The digital transformation of society is already reshaping the way we work and, in turn, this is reflected in the graduate level skills needs of today. The supply of these skills will be critical to drive a productive and competitive economy for the future.

In Higher Education, it is crucial to respond to these changing skills needs. The focus is not only on preparing current and future generations of students for the changing working environment, but also upskilling and reskilling those already in employment by creating accessible learning opportunities.

In order to deliver this, there will be even greater emphasis on the workplace as an educational environment. The workplace has always been a focus for some higher education institutions, such as RGU, through the delivery of degree courses which embed industry placements across a wide range of subject disciplines. However, this landscape is evolving and we are now beginning to see a greater extent of learning delivered directly in the workplace. This is made possible with advances in technology and the creation of flexible online learning environments.

With work-based learning, the workplace is the classroom - individuals work and learn concurrently and the knowledge and expertise acquired to meet business needs are immediately applied. This also provides a rich environment in which to further develop other skills – meta-skills - which can enable us to learn, work with others, make connections, identify opportunities and embrace change. 

Collaboration between industry and the education sector is key to the development of work-based learning. RGU and other educational institutions throughout the country have very close links within all sectors, on a local, national and international scale. This collaborative approach provides the opportunity to develop a demand-led curriculum which is tailored to the needs of employers.

A prime example of this is being applied through the Graduate Apprenticeship (GA) scheme. Skills Development Scotland (SDS) is working in partnership with employers, universities and professional bodies to provide work-based learning degrees, creating stronger links between industry and education, and upskilling workforces for the future. They were designed with the aim of addressing national skills shortages in key areas – such as healthcare, engineering and IT - and to enable employers to shape their workforce in line with business demands while offering a high value, low cost option to upskill staff.

As a transformational work-based learning initiative, GAs help to develop the workforces across Scotland with the essential expertise, tools and innovative skills to navigate changing working landscapes and fulfil the needs of industry. This approach is a considerable step-change in learning, and, while it is in its relative infancy, its flexibility is proving extremely popular for both the students and the participating organisations. This is further demonstrated by the wide geographical spread of companies engaged in the scheme, from large multinationals to small organisations, across both the private and public sector.

One of the organisations which clearly recognised the benefit of the increased shift to work-based learning was Sparrows Group. From the outset, Sparrows has been involved in the scheme and several of its employees are currently studying and learning through a GA. The organisation now has a total of 10 apprentices, on a variety of GA programmes, and sees GAs as an extension of its own apprenticeship scheme whereby both the employer and the apprentice will benefit. The graduate apprentices are benefiting from a new type of learning, putting what they have learned into practice immediately with support from both their employer and the university. Sparrows is also benefitting in a number of ways, from being able to plan for its skills needs in a new way and develop its existing staff with emerging and transferable skill sets, to improving employee retention by supporting and investing in their development.

Employers have a crucial role – not only in supporting enriched learning, but also in using work-based learning to create a skills pipeline to meet future needs. With industry and employer support, and capitalising on the opportunities delivered by technological advances, educational institutions can provide new model partnerships between students, teachers and employers, building learning that is aligned to the future needs of the economy.

Wherever we look, change is happening. Industries and sectors around the world are adopting new ways of working. To support this, it is inevitable that the way we teach and learn will continue to evolve. Taking education into the workplace through the progression of work-based learning will play a key part in ensuring that we are equipped to meet the skills needs of the future.

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