Workplace Learning: What Role Can Universities Play? - UBIS University of Business Innovation and Sustainability

Workplace Learning: What Role Can Universities Play?

As the business world continues to evolve at an ever-increasing speed, so too do the needs and demands of companies, employers and their teams. Greater emphasis is being put on employee retention, improving internal skillsets and recognising the need for resilient and flexible teams. One way that companies are future-proofing their workforce is by creating a culture of learning and development through the offer of workplace learning initiatives.

What is also changing is the relationship between higher education institutions and the workplaces their graduates are entering. As we discussed in our last blog, there are several ways in which universities are preparing their students to make the move from learning to earning. But is there more that the higher education sector can do to develop those business partnerships? What role can universities play in developing workplace learning that is beneficial not only to their students, but also to their local (and global) business and education ecosystem?

The rise of workplace learning and development

According to a recent study by Education Engage and FutureLearn, at least $240 billion is spent globally per year on corporate training. With the cost of external recruitment estimated to be upwards of $30,000, it’s easy to see why such huge value is placed on developing existing teams.

The three main reasons that companies invest in learning and development for their teams are: compliance within their sector, to support and boost short-term performance, or increase long-term capacity and capability. These are areas of high importance for businesses of all sizes. In an increasingly unstable economic landscape, the desire to upskill rather than outsource is strong. Not only is an internal hire less costly from a financial point of view, they are also more likely to already be a ‘good fit’ with company culture.

This study also highlights that employees (often, graduates) are also being turned on to the benefits of workplace learning. During the pandemic, research from LinkedIn revealed that the time employees spent on their professional learning rose by 130%. This change in employee priorities was reflected in the views of employers too. 64% of Learning and Development leaders seeing it as a priority ‘now more than ever’.

Workplaces that offer skills development and training that results in recognised qualifications or accreditations are increasingly sought after by jobseekers, including those moving from a higher education environment into the world of work. So how can universities act on this interest to better support their students and local businesses?

University: where education meets the workplace

We know that learning and development for university staff is well-established. Improving digital literacy, leadership and management, and health and safety are all areas in which staff can take up training. These workshops and courses are often provided by external companies or consultants, but the rise in the demand for workplace learning across the board has shown that universities can be external providers, too.

Over the last decade, we have seen an increasing number of apprenticeships being offered through higher education institutions. We have already seen the success of qualifications offered by British Gas, to retrain employees to work in green energy roles. Microsoft has offered its staff upskilling opportunities through further and higher education institutions as part of its succession planning. In 2017, Manchester Metropolitan University announced its partnership with McDonalds, offering a workplace-based qualification in hospitality management. Through this course, apprentices gained recognition as a chartered manager under the Chartered Management Institute.

With the rise in online and distance learning options, we could see more workplaces offering higher education qualifications to their staff. On a local level, this would enable universities to strengthen ties with local businesses and even establish reciprocal opportunities for their graduates. On a global level, distance learning programmes mean universities can establish meaningful links with companies around the world. This gives employees access to higher education programmes that might not have before been possible, while raising the international profile of the university.

How will workplace learning benefit students?

When universities participate in workplace learning, it also benefits the students who are soon to be entering those workplaces. Establishing links with local businesses can result in work experience and graduate job opportunities for students. Students can build on skills and experience outside the parameters of their degree programme. These skills can then be transferable into future job roles.

Employees who become students through workplace learning programs are able to participate in courses that may previously have been inaccessible. They may have been limited either on account of geography, time pressures or financial restrictions. For example, the McDonald’s apprenticeship programme offered by Manchester Metropolitan University states that students’ tuition fees are paid for. Similar schemes are offered by other higher education partnerships too.

Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that workplace learning can not only help students transition into the workforce, but it can also ease their transition into university. One Australian study showed that workplace learning was highly valued by undergraduate students and that those who participated in workplace learning as part of their first year of study were less likely to drop out. This was true for under-represented students in particular. The study suggested that the offer of workplace learning was a beneficial retention strategy for students in general.

A blended experience

As with many aspects of life in a post-pandemic world, the links between higher education and the workplace are changing. Mostly, it seems, for the better. Workplace learning and development is just one way in which universities and the business sector can work together to support the workforce across the board.

Openness and flexibility from employers are crucial, but so are ambition and relationship building from the perspective of the universities. A culture of development benefits not only employees who are well-established in their roles and company, but also new graduates who are just entering (or re-entering) the workplace. In the longer term, this approach benefits the higher education and business sectors too, ensuring resilience and sustainability for the future.

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