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Degrees of honour: The qualifications ‘to go’


employer_qualificationsIgnoring the headlines about degrees in flipping burgers and shelf stacking, brand giants like McDonalds and Tesco have quietly got on with a ground breaking initiative designed to give employees the chance to gain qualifications at work. Students on pilot schemes will finish their first year in just a few months time. Annie Hayes looks at how the degrees are shaping up.

The idea of putting power into the hands of employers that have so long complained about the lack of key skills in workers has not surprisingly been an attractive one, with big names quickly taking up the chance to qualify their workforce. As previously reported on, Network Rail, Flybe, Tesco and McDonald's are amongst those companies that have been given the right to award nationally-accredited qualifications to employees for the first time.

First steps

The Employer Based Training Accreditation (EBTA) scheme's first pilots are already being developed with household names driving them forward. The retail management foundation degree - awarded by the University of the Arts, London and Manchester Metropolitan University - is delivered through a combination of workshops, work-based learning and online tutorials. The first Tesco students to start the degree began their studies in September 2007 at both universities.

"The degree has been designed by business, for business, and Tesco is proud to be continuing to shape the future of training for the wider retail sector," explained David Potts, retail and logistics director, Tesco.

Potts added: "We have designed the foundation degree to fit the needs of Tesco, in terms of student selection, course content and delivery model, and our new students are already telling us how it meets their individual needs."

"The degree has been designed by business, for business, and Tesco is proud to be continuing to shape the future of training for the wider retail sector."

David Potts, Tesco

Tesco certainly isn't the only organisation to jump on the qualifications bandwagon. Carl Sutcliffe, iLearning and training plan manager for Network Rail, says that a heavily regulated industry such as rail, with reams of internal qualifications to boot, was one of the reasons the qualifications authority approached them to take the pilot forward:

"Since January it's been quite intensive with getting all the qualifications assured and recognised and mapping some of the existing training to the framework," he explains. "There are three qualifications - the first is a level two in track engineering maintenance, the second is a level two certificate in track engineering maintenance and the third is a level three certificate."

Sutcliffe explains that a level two is the equivalent of grades A-C at GCSE, whilst a level three is the equivalent to an A-level standard qualification. By September, Network Rail hopes to have expanded beyond core engineering skills to recognise their aptitude for leadership and management.

The workforce appears to have an appetite for on-the-job accreditation too. Derek Longhurst, chief executive officer for Foundation Degree Forward (FDF), which offers degree-level qualifications delivered by colleges and universities in partnership with employers, says that there are 72,000 students currently going through the foundation degree process - a figure that he aims to increase to 100,000 by 2010/11.


John McGurk, learning, training and development adviser for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has given a cautious welcome to the new qualifications and is keen to see what he refers to as "people and performance" included within the modules.

And a further concern in the wider learning community is the portability of these qualifications. Longhurst says it's something that FDF is working hard at by ensuring that organisations are part of a steering group or consortium.

Mark Biffin, apprenticeship programme and strategy manager for telecoms giant BT, confirms this: "BT is on the project steering group developing a sector-based foundation degree in IT & telecoms. The employers included in this development are: BT, Vodafone, EDS, Oracle, O2, Royal School of Signals, Orange, RWE and the NHS. We are currently working with: Stafford, Glasgow Caledonian, Bath, OU and Thames Way Universities. Once verification is complete we will have a foundation degree that will be recognised by the leading employers within the sector."

He adds: "The additional benefit of a sector-based foundation degree is that SMEs would have access to the 'product', offering a career option that they know would be recognised within the sector, thus offering a valuable qualification to its employees."

Sutcliffe says portability is also key for Network Rail and is keen to impress that the new qualifications are not about reinventing the wheel or spending masses of extra hours in the classroom: "it's learning we are doing anyway, we are not changing the way we work. You need one to two credits to gain a level two certificate - one credit is the equivalent of ten hours of learning."

McGurk says that transferability depends on the degree, but generally, core, administrative and management skills should be portable: "it's ridiculous to think that a manager working at McDonalds doesn't know anything but flipping burgers."

What employees think

One of the strengths of EBTA is its wide appeal. Foundation degrees are aimed at both school-leavers looking for a course that interests them and which can provide practical work experience and career opportunities, whilst mature students and employees are looking to continue professional development through their employer, progress in their career or re-enter the employment market.

Alex Cave, 29, a compliance manager at Tesco in Helsby, started on the foundation degree course in September 2007. He has been with Tesco for 10 years and has a long-term ambition to be a store manager. Cave said: "I feel that the foundation degree will give me a competitive edge for future promotional opportunities and ultimately enable me to develop my career further".

McGurk remarks that it also works well for organisations such as McDonald's, where the chance to gain qualifications is part and parcel of improving retention rates and offering a career as opposed to a job. "It gives workers a future beyond being a crew member, there's a chance to develop to being a manager, a regional manager and a franchise holder."

The bottom line

So far so good, but what is the cost of all this and does a renewed emphasis on qualifications mean hours and hours dedicated to learning?

Peter Bennett, HR director for Network Rail, says foundation degrees actually offer very good value for money: "the actual cost of taking somebody through a two-year programme is probably in the region of £20,000. The cost of hiring a graduate is around £10,000 a piece, but then you have the two-year training programme on top. This way we get somebody on board, up and running, making a contribution, faster and at lower cost".

"Out of a two-year programme, they spend a full year with Network Rail, and that's a great advantage in terms of their employability and developing their skills."

Peter Bennett, HR director, Network Rail

Bennett also believes that in an industry such as rail, where specific skills are required, the output of universities can't be relied upon: "one of the attractions is that the students get exposure to the business from day one. So they do six months in university, six months within Network Rail and then back to university for a further six months, and then a final six-month work placement. So actually out of a two year programme, they spend a full year with Network Rail, and that's a great advantage in terms of their employability and developing their skills".


McGurk says there's a long way to go until prejudice against organisations like McDonald's is shaken off, and people stop thinking that those who work at fast food outlets are not worthy of qualifications. But, more than this, the formula is yet unproven, as McGurk explains: "nobody knows whether it does work, but it should".

Longhurst also addresses the enormity of the project: "students are not familiar with work being a place for learning. It's revolutionary and radical".

The future, says McGurk, is uncertain and depends on employers putting forward vocational training routes and, of course, those employers that currently find it easy to attract talent will be less willing to take part.

Further down the line there may also be implications for the traditional honours degree if EBTA really takes off, but for now there is a lot more work to be done on developing the programmes, expanding them not only across the skills sets but between the sectors. Whether they fulfil Leitch's objectives is the acid test and only 2020 will give us the answer to that.

The Employer Based Training Accreditation (EBTA) programme is a response to Lord Leitch's skills review which set out a range of ambitious goals to boost literacy and training in workplaces by 2020. The initiative aims to address what it calls the 'hit and miss' training that it claims is currently happening across sectors within the UK. At the heart of EBTA is an employer recognition scheme which forms part of the new Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF).

Click on the title to read Matt Henkes feature McQualifications: Would you like some perspective with that?


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