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‘Current Virtue – Future Value’

An Evaluation of the Role of Professional Postgraduate

Programmes in Embedding the Culture of Lifelong Learning and Continuing Professional Development

Gill Homan

Sue Shaw

Department of Management
Manchester Metropolitan University, UK

Paper Presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22 - 25 September 1999

Introduction

Vocational education for the professions serves a complex constituency. Stakeholders include the higher and further education sectors, students, employers, professional bodies, and government. In the UK, the higher education sector has a long history of successful partnership with various professional bodies. On both a full time and part time basis the higher education sector has provided courses of study for externally set, professional body examinations and offered internally assessed qualifications at undergraduate and postgraduate level that offer membership of professional bodies. This is usually a formal relationship involving visits by quality assurance panels from the professional bodies to ensure standards of course content and resource provision.

Less tangible and some might argue less successful, has been the relationship between employers and higher education. Employers often argue that graduates leave higher education without acquiring the fundamental skills needed for employment, whilst universities have resisted the view that their role is to train future managers for industry and commerce. Yet, in the last decade, the increase in the number of vocationally based higher education courses reflects not only the sector’s attempt to respond to employer’s needs and the tight graduate job market but also the introduction of numbers of successful first job destinations as one of the performance indicators of higher education. Government interest lies in ensuring that the flows of graduates onto the labour market match national need, now and in the future, whilst for students the attraction of vocational education lies in its marketability and the key that it offers to a career of choice.

During the last decade vocational education in the UK has received an even higher profile with the recognition of the central importance of lifelong learning. This has been acknowledged by all stakeholders in the vocational education process and has led to many professional bodies requiring their members to undertake continuing professional development (CPD) on a regular basis, as a requirement for continuing membership and for moving to higher grades of membership. The Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD), the professional body on which this study is focussed, has required all members qualified since 1991 to provide evidence of having undertaken regular CPD. Monitoring began in 1994 with regular surveys. In 1998, 75% of all those upgrading their membership were asked to provide evidence of CPD (IPD, 1999).

Continuing professional development requires individuals, not only to take ownership of their own learning but also to take ownership of the planning management and recording of their development (Cannon, Wiltana & Edwards, 1996). We believe this requires a particular perspective on development and an additional set of skills not normally developed in a programme of study within higher education.

The role of higher education in the furtherance of lifelong learning is summarised by the action agenda for lifelong learning for the 21st century published in 1995 on behalf of the World Initiative on Lifelong Learning. It suggests a leadership role for the education sector in addressing the needs of the whole community including its own employees, fostering research into learning, utilising learning technology, accrediting prior learning and encouraging ‘the professional organisations to promote lifelong learning among their members’ (Longworth & Davies, 1996, p 162). However, it does not specifically mention equipping people to meet the demands of lifelong learning.

We would argue that higher education has a role to play in providing a platform for lifelong learning and continuing professional development and that this role will become increasingly significant in the next century. The critical question is how far current higher education practice fulfils that role. This paper presents the results of a study into the effectiveness of a specific programme, which was designed to lay the foundations for and develop the skills required to facilitate continuing professional development and lifelong learning. It draws some conclusions on the role of higher education in preparing future professionals for the demands of continuing professional development and lifelong learning and considers the significance of this for future course design.

The Module Context

The Postgraduate Diploma in Human Resource Management (HRM) at Manchester Metropolitan University is a mature product within a departmental portfolio of postgraduate general management programmes. It operates on both a full time one year and part time two-year basis and provides full exemption from the professional body’s (IPD) examinations. The course consists of a basic business foundation programme, professional subjects, option choices, and a module that provides the framework for skills development and assessment across the whole programme. This module is called Human Resource Management Action (HRMA) and is the focus for this study.

The development of HRMA built upon a previous module covering the development and assessment of generic management skills. This had proved successful with both students and staff and a periodic review in the early 1990’s offered the opportunity to create a more ambitious module with broader objectives. The IPD’s consultation process with course providers ensured that CPD was on the agenda when the re-design process was underway.

The objectives for the new HRMA module were to:

Provide a framework for the development, integration and assessment of core managerial and professional skills;

Provide a basis for continuing professional development beyond completion of the course through the embedding of appropriate skills and attitudes;

Develop skills centred around self knowledge and assessment and self development;

Offer practical experience of competence based development to facilitate an understanding of the processes involved.

The module began with a pre-course self-assessment questionnaire focussed on core managerial skills and a pre-course placement for those with no prior experience in HRM. During the course, students developed competence in eight core managerial skills (four compulsory and four of their own choice) together with four professional skills. Developing competence was facilitated by a series of workshops and self-development activities. Opportunities for practise were provided by a placement, work based project, course activities and personal and social life. A portfolio containing a learning journal, project report, evidence of competence and a reflective essay, provided evidence for assessment of competence. The project was tutor assessed whilst the remainder of the portfolio was peer assessed. Given the target group for the Diploma was potential Human Resource Management Specialists and Human Resource Development Specialists, it was expected that the module would have high face validity. This was because it provided a real opportunity for participants to experience activities and processes that they would probably be responsible for persuading others to take on board subsequently in a professional capacity. For example self-assessment has a valuable role to play in performance appraisal (Franks et al, 1999).

The annual quality monitoring systems provided regular feedback in successive years of the perceived value of this module to students whilst on the course. This feedback was mixed in terms of the overall profile of the programme. The academic subjects regularly received good / excellent ratings from 85% – 100% of the students whilst the ratings for HRMA were consistently at around 65 % good / excellent. The soft data from the monitoring systems showed that some students were less than comfortable with the self-development aspect of the module, whilst others found the portfolio a difficult form of assessment.

A further periodic course review in the academic year 1998/9 offered the opportunity not only to address the issues raised by the students but also an opportunity to explore the degree to which the objectives, which stretched beyond the life of the programme, had been achieved.

The Concepts Underpinning the Module

It is now accepted wisdom from government through Boardroom to shopfloor that the concept of a job for life has disappeared and that employability is best secured by the constant upgrading and extending of skills and knowledge. For some, this may mean a complete change of direction two, three or more times in a working life with the need to learn a completely new set of skills. For others, such as those within the professions, this is more likely to mean the battle to keep on top of constantly changing legislation, working practices and the acquisition of new knowledge. The age of lifelong learning has arrived.

The concept of lifelong learning has been accepted and fostered by all the stakeholders within the professional and vocational education field both nationally and internationally (Longworth &Davies, 1996). The European Union’s ‘Year of Lifelong Learning’ in 1996, UK initiatives such as the development of vocational qualifications, the acceptance of the provisions of the Dearing Report (1996) demonstrate commitment at government levels. The higher education sector has produced both academic rationales such as the ‘learning organisation’ (Pedlar et al, 1992), and practical initiatives such as the introduction of credit accumulation transfer schemes and accreditation of prior learning. In response to this increasing consensus, professional bodies have developed philosophies of continuing education and development. The frameworks and degree to which CPD is a requirement for the maintenance of membership differ but there are some common underlying concepts (Sangster, 1999). Firstly, that the responsibility for the planning and management of CPD lies firmly with the individual. Secondly, the recognition of individual differences, in that CPD will be a unique experience for each person and he or she will determine the content of that development (though the amount that must be undertaken in hours or days, may often be specified and compliance monitored). Finally, that the development undertaken must enhance professional performance or competence. At the same time, the tensions inherent in the concept of CPD with its multiple stakeholders cannot be ignored. The notion of personal ownership must be weighed against the monitoring and enforcement by professional bodies and the element of choice against the fact that most CPD will be funded by employers who will require some evidence of a return on their investment (IDS, 1992).

In seeking to develop a module that would prepare individuals for CPD, the study of adult learning (Knowles, 1975; Smith, 1982; Kolb et al, 1971; Revans, 1971; Honey and Mumford, 1986) informed an approach grounded in the concepts of self direction, motivation, practical relevance and the previous and ongoing experience of the individual and others. This is far removed from traditional pedagogical delivery of academic programmes, which in it self may create confusion and a perceived lack of credibility. Mumford (1989) captures the complex interplay of the managerial role, the concept of competency and the adult learning process.

For students to see this as a valuable part of the course, they have to perceive its relevance to both their current and future careers, and the face validity of the concepts within their current experience is vital. Thus, it will be an essentially individual experience unique to that person. The principles and models of self-development recognise the holistic nature of the development of the individual (Mumford, 1989) and the transfer of knowledge from one sphere of life to another. Hawrylyshyn’s model (1979) demonstrates how the transfer of knowledge needs to underpinned by the more complex process of attitude and skills development and how there needs to be integration and synergy between all three.

The early recognition of the importance of management skills for Human Resource specialists had its origins in the body of research on the management role (Mintzberg, 1973: Burgoyne & Stuart, 1976; Stewart, 1988). It was boosted by the resurgence of interest in managerial effectiveness in the UK in the 1980’s (Handy, 1987; Constable & McCormack, 1987) and informed by the competence approach to management development (Boyatzis, 1982; Burgoyne, 1989).

Translating the concepts of personal and interpersonal development into a practical reality inevitably involves making arbitrary decisions about how complex skills will be presented to facilitate learning, with all the problems of reintegration that this brings (Burgoyne, 1989). This was achieved by making explicit the linkages between the differentiated personal and interpersonal skills and their contribution as the foundation for professional skills.

Ensuring the relevance of content to future professional practice, the importance of transferable skills, was ensured by basing content on past research into the skills and attributes valued by organisations and present in their own competency frameworks (Hirsh & Bevan, 1988; Evers & Rush, 1996). At the same time they had to reflect current thinking on HR specific competencies (Carig, 1996; Yeung, 1996; Warner Burke, 1997; Losey, 1999; Gibb Dyer, 1999).

These concepts had to be crafted into a process which would satisfy academic requirements for rigour, reflect the different levels of experience and knowledge on entry and ensure that the process itself received sufficient emphasis to embed it as a platform for continuing professional development beyond the course. This led to an acceptance that it was in essence the quality of the process that was being examined.

The Study

Data was collected by means of a questionnaire and semi structured telephone interviews. In all 234 graduates were surveyed by two questionnaires. The first questionnaire went to the three full-time and two part time cohorts that had already successfully completed the course (n=162). The second questionnaire, an amended version of the first, was administered to the part and full-time cohorts who were still studying on the programme (n=72).

The questionnaire attempted to elicit respondents’ views on the extent to which each objective had been achieved; the currency and degree of transfer of the professional and managerial skills; the process undertaken during the module; suggestions for change and improvement; and biographical data. The current students’ questionnaire had smaller sections on professional skills and skills transfer to reflect their stage of study. The overall response rate was 52%. This comprised 49% for the questionnaire to graduates and 58% for the current cohorts.

Where graduates indicated a willingness to be interviewed and supplied a telephone number a follow up interview took place, in all there were fifteen of these. These offered the opportunity to discuss responses in greater detail.

Findings and Conclusions

The most striking finding of the research was the disparity in perceptions between the current and the past cohorts.

Objectives met/exceeded Objectives not met

Past cohorts

79.8%

15.4%

Current cohorts

53.3%

39.1%

Students become graduate members of the professional body on successful completion of the course. They are then required to have three years experience to meet the requirement for upgrading to the next level of membership. Some of the part time students already meet that requirement, but for the majority, the experience has to be gained during and after qualification. It was not surprising, therefore, to find that less than 5% of past cohorts had already upgraded their membership whilst 58% planned to within the next twelve months.

When asked about the process that the module had entailed the past and current cohort were again divided. The comments of current students reflected their insecurity with the notions of self-development and taking responsibility for their own learning. On virtually every aspect of the process from the pre-course self-assessment questionnaire to the reflective essay and peer assessment there were comments about the need for more tutor input and guidance, interim assessment by tutors and greater facilitation of support groups by tutors. In contrast, past students commented on the sense of achievement that they had experienced in completing the process but added that, at the same time, they had not realised the extent of their achievement until they had reflected sufficiently to write the final essay.

The extent of use of the various components of the process beyond the course was markedly disparate. There were those that found the keeping of a learning journal a tedious waste of time but there were also those who had found it remarkably helpful and had continued to do so until the present day. Other aspects, such as the learning contracts, portfolio of evidence and reflective essay evoked similar reactions. Each of the components of the process was used by between 25-28% of past students. This raises the question as to how strongly the process of the module should be defined. If the participants are truly to own it, perhaps it is necessary for them to be able to select amongst a variety of components to shape their own process. The downside of this arises with the perceived rigour of assessment, which is required by the university as an awarding body.

The third major finding was in the area of competence-based learning. Forty percent had been involved in some form of competence based learning since graduation and there was a general consensus that the module had provided them with a useful experience, which had informed their practise in their working role.

Implications and Discussion

The responses of the current cohorts, still with four months of an intensive, mainly conventionally assessed course to run, suggested that there are a number of difficulties in running a self-development module within a conventional academic, vocational course.

The first difficulty is to gain understanding of the continuing nature of a module, which stretches the length of the course. The semesterisation and modularization of A levels and degree courses have reinforced the short time horizons for both learning and assessment and create a tension with any forms of assessment which run counter to them. Real difficulty is experienced in maintaining a level of sustained input in the face of other assessment demands. Consequently, the on going nature of self- development needs to be stressed and valued.

Having emerged through an academic route which in the UK is highly structured many students, particularly full time who are usually recent graduates, lack both the skills and the confidence to manage their own learning. Given that individuals are arguably going to have to do this more and more as the concept of lifelong learning gathers momentum, greater consideration needs to be given to this earlier in the academic career. This may become more of a reality as learning on line becomes more widespread.

Much of this lack of confidence stems from the under development of skills such as self-assessment and the ability to be reflective on their own performance. Traditional academic programmes whilst they develop many excellent skills such as critical thinking do not develop the skills required for self-development. Much fuller consideration needs to be given to this in the future.

Ensuring that the module has credibility with students despite the lack of conventional assessment by emphasising its centrality to the programme and their future career development.

Recognising that many of those entering the profession for the first time have little in the way of a bank of experience that allows them to recognise the demands that CPD will entail in the future.

The notion that learning in one area of life has value in other areas is also at odds with current academic education, which stresses the objective and critical assessment of an external body of knowledge. Students can feel uncomfortable at the attempted removal of previously secure and well-defined boundaries between different areas of their life.

These issues ensure that we return to the central question. Does higher education have a role to play in preparing students for lifelong learning in general and continuing professional development in particular? We believe that answer is yes and feel that students’ reflection on the value of the module once they reached the workplace supports that view. This leaves the UK higher education academic environment with its short term horizons and culture of ‘no exam, no essay, no value’ arguably at odds with the tenets of lifelong learning. If higher education is to continue prepare future generations of professionals, for an environment in which the ability to remain employable is directly related to a commitment to lifelong learning, in the face of increasing competition from other sources of provision, then we need to rethink our approach to design and delivery of courses. Higher education must learn not just to espouse the value of lifelong learning but also to develop assess and value those skills that will enable and equip students for their continuing education and development and provide the opportunities for and empower students to take control of their learning process. The nature and difficulty of the shift required to achieve this cannot be underestimated, however, the rewards to be achieved in the perceived value by students and organisations and government of the relevance and virtues of higher education are rich indeed.

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This document was added to the Education-line database 23 September 1999