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How are the discourses of Work-based Learning influencing practice?


Fiona Reeve and Jim Gallacher

Glasgow Caledonian University, Scotland, UK

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 29th Annual Conference, 5-7 July 1999, University of Warwick


This paper develops a framework for research into issues associated with the emergence of work-based (WBL) as an important new element of provision within higher education. Here work-based learning will be used to refer to learning through work, where learning is derived from engaging in the actual work role or job. We argue that in attempting to understand the development and the implications of WBL it is important to identify the discourses which have emerged, and which have shaped the implementation of WBL. These discourses have emerged in a context of change within the economy, and in the nature of work. They have also been influenced by the wider discourse of lifelong learning, and the process of change which has been transforming the nature of higher education. We conclude by suggesting a possible agenda for research in this area to explore the effects of these discourses on the work-based learning experience.

Discourses of WBL and Lifelong Learning

Attempts to foreground the ‘discourses’ which describe practices have increasingly entered debates in higher education (HE) and society more generally. Within the field of adult and continuing education Edwards (1997) in particular has begun the process of exploring the value of this approach in developing an understanding of the emerging concepts of lifelong learning and a learning society. Since work-based learning and workplace learning are given considerable prominence within the rhetoric of lifelong learning, and to a lesser extent perhaps the actual practices, Edwards’ analysis addresses some of the components of this particular form of ‘flexible’ learning. Drawing on this approach we will attempt to outline in this paper how a study which focuses on the discourses of work-based learning might illuminate the varied practices which are already established and which are increasingly proposed as key elements of the new learning agenda.

We will begin by identifying some of the relationships between discourses of WBL and other powerful discourses in post-compulsory education. We will then explore some key elements of the discourses of work-based learning which are relevant in the context of higher education. Although we recognise that these may not constitute an exhaustive account we hope to illustrate some of the main influences and tensions that have emerged. Since the various ‘stakeholders’ in work-based learning (traditionally described as employers, higher education institutions (HEIs) and learners) have different purposes and priorities it is unsurprising that different and potentially competing discourses can be identified.

The development of work-based learning as an accredited activity within higher education was stimulated in the mid 1980s by an initial suit of 11 pilot projects which were funded by the then Employment Department (ED, 1994), additional funding was then made available for further project work. The objectives of these initiatives were focused on the needs of the labour market and on assisting learners in their task of developing skills required for employment. These projects could therefore be identified with a wider discourse that aimed to vocationalise higher education and which was explicitly linked to an economic imperative. Whilst the objectives of the government in stimulating work-based learning were clearly related to the needs of the economy, the practitioners who were involved in operationalising this new form of provision were also influenced by discourses of widening access to higher education which gave expression to a more democratic imperative. Thus in its initial development discourses of work-based learning have drawn on both these alternative discourses of higher education. Although the concept of lifelong learning has a longer history it was only perhaps in the mid 1990s that discourses of lifelong learning became a significant influence within work-based learning development. However, it may be argued that since that time discourses of lifelong learning have rapidly subsummed the earlier influences. Therefore although the origins of work-based learning drew on discourses of ‘vocationalising higher education’ and ‘widening access’ current discourses of work-based learning can be located within wider discourses of lifelong learning. At the same time, as a key component of this agenda, discourses of WBL may be used to reinforce the wider concerns of lifelong learning.

What are the influential discourses of WBL?

Some of the main elements of the discourses of WBL are indicated below. As one might expect these may overlap, be mutually reinforcing or in conflict. Practitioners and policy makers may of course draw on appropriate combinations of these themes in the different contexts in which they are operating.


The notion of ‘partnership’ has assumed a central place in the discourses of WBL (Brennan and Little, 1996; ED 1994). Although ‘partnership’ may at times take on the characteristics of an all-encompassing principle or mantra, it may be helpful to identify three distinct but intertwining forms of partnership. Firstly, and most forcibly, higher education institutions are exhorted to enter into partnership with the customers or funders of WBL, particularly with employers, but also latterly with trade unions, voluntary organisations and professional bodies. ‘Partnership’ in these circumstances suggests that HEIs are to some extent relinquishing their exclusive rights to design and implement the learning programme and are acknowledging the strengths and contributions of the other parties. While the role of the partners may vary in practice the rhetoric emphasises a model of partnership where employers take an active role in negotiating the focus of the learning, provide support in the workplace and have some involvement in assessment. Whilst this approach has been developed initially with larger employers considerable emphasis has now been placed on trying to develop partnerships with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) either directly or through representative organisations. The difficulties which have been experienced in securing SME involvement in practice perhaps also serve to illustrate the wider point that employing organisations may not be able to resource the very full role that such conceptions of ‘partnership’ imply. However, despite these constraints the discourse of partnership does aim to diminish barriers between formal and informal providers of learning. The second form of partnership, between HEIs and the learners themselves, has been a less explicit element of the discourse, perhaps because this tends to be enacted on a more individual basis and is focused on the individual as a learner rather than employee. At its heart lies the acknowledgement that WBL requires a shift from didactic forms of teaching to ‘learner managed learning’, which in itself has emerged as a powerful discourse (see below). The final form of partnership has been identified by Edwards (1997) with the emerging notion of the ‘learning organisation’ in which ‘employment relationships are reconfigured as forms of partnership rather than based on conflict’ (p. 146). Here attempts are made to reconcile the interests of the employer and employees through a common commitment to the survival of the organisation. In this context training or learning opportunities become another arena for negotiation and agreement.

Thus the discourse of partnership in WBL, in its many forms, implies that a natural consensus can be reached between different stakeholders. It acts to minimise the difficulties that may be encountered in attempting to negotiate a learning programme and it encourages institutions in particular to relinquish some of their traditional control over process and outcome.

Increasing competitiveness through increasing relevance

The demand for learning to have greater relevance for the workplace lies at the heart of much WBL development. This is particularly true of learning at degree level where perhaps the greatest sense of discontinuity has been reported. Whilst the link between providing greater and more relevant training opportunities and increased competitiveness is unclear, this has not prevented ‘relevance’ from becoming a very powerful discourse within education and latterly lifelong learning policy (NCIHE, 1997; ED, 1994). Since WBL offers the prospect of tailoring the learning objectives to the particular needs of the organisation it has been actively promoted as a means of satisfying the requirement for relevance. Indeed WBL practitioners who might otherwise identify with learner autonomy or reflective practice (see below) might on occasions utilise this more dominant discourse to win support for innovative developments within their institution or in funding applications.

In its desire for greater ‘impact on practice’ this discourse encourages a closer integration between the learning process and the normal activities of the work role. Learning through solving real problems, engaging in on-going projects etc. is linked to evaluation in order to provide for new actions. Whilst the integration of learning and work may remain incomplete this discourse minimises the barriers between work and learning.


Related to the discourse of ‘relevance’ a highly developed discourse of competence has emerged within vocational education. This places the emphasis on the individual’s ability to perform a particular task associated with a job or a wider role. Whilst different conceptions of ‘competence’ have emerged within the UK and elsewhere, the dominance of the model associated with the National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and the Scottish National Vocational Qualifications (SVQs) is striking. Indeed so dominant is this VQ discourse of competence that it at times subsumes wider forms of WBL, for example some of the concerns expressed by staff within higher education regarding the introduction of WBL may be traced to this particular model.

The Reflective Practitioner

The relevance of higher education curricula for work has been challenged from another perspective, that of the professional in practice. The notion of the reflective practitioner who not only reflects on action but also within the action itself was developed by Donald Schon (1987) in response to the perceived failure of the dominant mode of technical rationality within initial professional education. Whilst implementing this approach is not without its difficulties (Clift et al, 1990) the discourse surrounding reflective practice has been remarkably successful. In particular it has penetrated some professions such as nursing, teaching and social work which are seeking to establish themselves within academic contexts. While staff within these professions and HE have sought to encourage reflective practice through a number of formal and informal mechanisms it has become the particular focus of WBL programmes at the post-qualifying level.

Learning from experience

Whilst a theory of learning from experience may lie at the heart of WBL as an associated discourse it has perhaps been overshadowed by those of partnership and relevance outlined above. This is particularly true at the policy level within government, lead bodies and the professions. However, its influence may be stronger amongst practitioners within higher education where the theory of learning from experience may combine with deeply held values regarding the purposes and processes of adult education. Despite its ‘common sense’ appeal the discourse of learning from experience does articulate a clear challenge to the pre-eminence of the academy. Taking experience as the starting point for learning has the potential to erode traditional boundaries between knowledge and skills, vocational and academic learning, and between disciplines.

Learner autonomy

A related discourse, which perhaps has wider penetration within higher education, highlights the central role of learners in managing their own learning. This notion of learner autonomy has also received support from the Employment Department through a series of projects funded in 1993. Within work-based learning the effects of this discourse are particularly evident. Participants are no longer students but ‘candidates’ or simply ‘learners’, they are given the major role in ‘taking responsibility for their own learning’ whilst the academic staff and workplace mentors provide ‘support’ rather than direction.


Concerns about ‘quality’ have played an important role in framing work-based learning development. Initial work emphasised the importance of ensuring that the outcomes of work-based learning were comparable to those of more conventional provision despite the differences in process. Indeed as Brennan and Little (1996) note these early concerns led developers to put in place more overt mechanisms to assure quality than had traditionally been the case in higher education and in particular to lay bare some of the implicit assumption which surround assessment. Many of these approaches have now permeated more widely within higher education, for example the use of learning outcomes, descriptions of level, and explicit assessment criteria etc. The role of the Higher Education Quality Council and its successor the Quality Assurance Agency have been particularly significant in this regard, leading some to question the rise of a ‘quality industry’ which might discourage some staff from deviating from accepted norms.


While the influence of many of the discourses outlined above do reach beyond WBL this is particularly true of the final discourse which we would like to highlight in this paper, ‘flexibility’. Indeed the notion of ‘flexibility’ has become almost all pervasive in discussions of policy and practice within lifelong learning. Within work-based learning particular significance has been attached to the degree of flexibility within a programme, in terms of both practical arrangements (start and end points, location of meetings, deadlines, programme structure etc.) and to the content (ability to negotiate the focus for learning and assessment mechanisms). In particular the requirement to be ‘responsive’ to the needs of employers and learners has been highlighted (ED, 1994). In contrast less consideration has been given to exploring the balance of flexibility and structure within programmes and to the difficulties of operating WBL within a less than flexible institution infrastructure.

What has shaped these discourses?

The discourses of WBL and the practices of WBL have emerged in the context of major changes in the economy and the nature of work. These changes have been associated with the growing emphasis on lifelong learning, and with change within the higher education system. An important objective for research in this area must be to examine how these developments are helping shape the nature of WBL, and the learning experiences for those involved. The key changes in the economy and the nature of work can be identified as follows:

the importance of rapid technological development

the growing emphasis on a 'knowledge' economy

the increasing globalisation of the economy.

These changes have helped give rise to a discourse of competitiveness in which a key element is the level of knowledge and skills of the workforce. This has led to an emphasis on the need to ensure that the workforce have appropriate opportunities for education and training if economies are to develop and thrive in the international market. There has also been a growing emphasis on the idea that, associated with the rapid pace of change in technology and the growth of an 'information society', the nature of work is changing. The keys skills and competences are no longer the traditional forms of specialised knowledge and skill, but the core skills which enable workers to become multi-skilled, work in teams and acquire new skills, competences and roles as these are required (EC,1996).

All of these developments have underpinned a discourse of lifelong learning in which the emphasis is no longer on 'front end' education which prepares people for their life of work, but on providing opportunities for an ongoing process of learning throughout a changing career. Associated with this has been a growing emphasis on competence, and the development of core skills. These have increasingly been presented as key objectives in the development of the system of education and training. Within this context WBL has a potentially important role, insofar as it enables employees to engage in the regular processes of up-dating and continuing professional development which have been increasingly emphasised. However it is also clear that not all employees are equally likely to have access to these learning opportunities with investment in core workers taking precedence over those on the periphery.

These changes in the economic system, and the discourses which have been associated with them, have also had a major impact on the higher education system. The high level of demands for education and training has led to the growth of mass systems of higher education (Scott,1995). However the changes in higher education have not just been ones of growth in scale, but also in the nature of the education system. New kinds of knowledge, much of which is generated outside of the academy, have been given much higher status. Education has also been encouraged to become more flexible and responsive to the needs of the learner. The privileged role of higher education is also questioned as further education colleges, training agencies, and employers become more involved in the provision of learning opportunities. It is in this context that the discourses associated with WBL, which we have outlined above, have emerged.

Examining the relationship between WBL discourses and practice – an agenda for research

Since the mid 1980s WBL has become increasingly established within higher education in the UK. Many of the initiatives have emerged in response to the changes outlined above and have been shaped by particular discourses, a number of which are identified at the beginning of this paper. In their review of work-based learning development published in 1996 Brennan and Little highlight the lack of systematic research in this area. We would share their concern and argue for further research to investigate how WBL is emerging in response to these influences and how the these discourses are shaping the learning experiences of participants. In order to take forward this process we set out below an outline agenda for a future programme of research. Key questions for research are suggested together with an illustration of some of the related issues for investigation.

Key research themes

1 What are the changes in the nature of occupations that are generating the perceived needs for WBL?

For example, the introduction of new working practices, greater scrutiny within the public sector.

2 What is identified as the focus for the WBL in order to respond to these needs?

For example, core skills, multi-skilling or role specific knowledge.

3 What types of WBL processes have been proposed to meet these perceived needs?

What structures are proposed and what are the role of the various ‘partners’ in setting the agenda?

What models of learning are guiding developments and what is their impact?

4 To what extent are there inequalities in the opportunities for WBL

Which groups of employees are most likely to have these opportunities, are these differentiated by grade/level, gender, ethnicity, or type of contract?

5 What are the experiences of learners within these WBL processes?

What are their experiences of being ‘flexible’ or ‘autonomous’ learners?

How is the learning process supported in practice?

6 What is the nature of the learning which emerges from implementing these WBL processes?

Is the learning highly individual or part of a shared process?

What kinds of knowledge and skills are privileged by organisations and what is actually developed?

7 What are the effects of participation in these WBL processes on the way in which the learner operates within their occupational context?

Are approaches to work or relationships changed?

How does participation impact on the performance of the organisation?

While valuable work has already been undertaken under some of these themes we conclude by suggesting that a wider programme of research, such as that outlined above, would draw together important common issues to deepen our understanding of WBL. We also acknowledge that, while in the confines of this paper it has only been possible to address WBL development within higher education, the implications of changes which are taking place in the context of lifelong learning imply that a wider study would also be appropriate.


Brennan, J. and Little, B. (1996) A review of work-based learning in higher education. London: Quality Support Centre and OU Press.

Clift, R., Houston, R. and Pugach M. (Eds) (1990) Encouraging Reflective Practice in Education: an analysis of issues and programmes. New York:Teachers College Press.

Edwards, R (1997) Changing Places. London: Routledge.

Employment Department (1994) Higher education developments: the skills link 2. Sheffield: Employment Department.

European Commission (1996) Teaching and Learning: Towards the Learning Society. Luxembourg: EC.

National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (1997) Higher Education in the Learning Society (The Dearing Report) London: HMSO.

Schön, D. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner: towards a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Inc.

Scott, P (1995) The Meanings of Mass Higher Education. Buckingham: SRHE & OU.


This document was added to the Education-line database 21 June 1999