Stan Lester Developments

education and training systems




Dr Stan Lester

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Work-based learning

at university level



This page includes a short introduction and links to papers on negotiated work-based university programmes and to work-based doctorates. 












Negotiated work-based university programmes

Many UK and overseas universities recognise learning that takes place in the workplace and other non-institutional settings towards the qualifications that they award.  This includes recognition of previous learning gained at work or through community and similar activity (often called ‘accreditation of prior experiential learning’, APEL); recognition of full-time students’ learning on work placements and sandwich periods; the use of work-based projects as part of a degree or diploma; and the use of university certification to support in-company programmes. 

One of the most exciting developments in this field is the growth of negotiated work-based programmes. In this kind of programme, individuals and groups work with university tutors to design a programme around their existing experience, current work and future aims.  Programmes can draw on existing or newly-designed university courses (including e-learning and peer learning modules), make use of activities such as action learning, coaching and mentoring, or be based on individual learning from or connected to work activities; many include a mix of different kinds of activity.  Most WBL programmes require participants to undertake a substantial piece of independent activity that is based around their work, equivalent to the project or dissertation stage of a conventional degree or diploma.  Negotiated programmes can vary from a small piece of work that leads to an undergraduate certificate, through to master’s degrees and (at a few universities) doctorates.  Work-based learning can pose a challenge to traditional university structures and ways of working;  as I argue in a short article (below), it requires a realisation or partnership approach to working rather than the more usual concern with delivery.  The intensive nature of this kind of provision has tended to mean that universities have focused most strongly on groups of learners from single employers or professions rather than fully individually-negotiated programmes.

I was involved with Professor John Stephenson in the development of the Ufi-Learndirect Learning through Work programme, which provided a set of principles, a web-based gateway, and an extensive range of learning resources for people in work to apply to, and negotiate programmes with, several participating universities from across the UK.  While Learndirect no longer run the Learning through Work gateway, the principles and resources are still used by some of the universities that were involved.   I have also worked on several projects with Middlesex University to research and contribute to aspects of work-based learning, including the use of learning agreements, work-based projects and recognition of previous learning. 

As I argue in the paper ‘A qualification system fit for adults’, some of the principles of this kind of work-based learning can be applied in further education/VET provided that appropriate systems and structures are put in place to support it. 

  Article by Stan Lester (2015):  “A qualification system fit for adults? Revisiting some ideas from the University for Industry”, Higher Education, Skills and Work-based Learning 5 (2), 102-116 (discusses applying NWBL principles to further education)

  Article by Stan Lester & Carol Costley (2010):  “Work-based learning at higher education level:  value, practice and critique,” Studies in Higher Education  35 (5), 561-575

  Article by Stan Lester (2002):  “Negotiated work-based learning: from delivery systems to realisation systems,”  Capability  5 (1), 6-9.


Degree Apprenticeships

Degree Apprenticeships were officially introduced in the UK in 2015, although some pre-existing programmes such as the ACCA/Oxford Brookes University accountancy degree followed similar principles.  The basic premise of a degree apprenticeship is that it involves studying for a degree alongside full-time employment, typically in a training post.  Various patterns of study are possible including day- and block-release, together with different levels of integration between workplace and academic learning.  The most popular areas for the development of degree apprenticeships are currently management, engineering and information and communications technology, although they are also beginning to appear or be developed for entry to other professions including accountancy, law, surveying and architecture.  Degree apprenticeships may lead to bachelor’s or master’s degrees.

 Report by Darryll Bravenboer and Stan Lester (2020):  Sustainable Degree Apprenticeships, London, Middlesex University

  Report by Stan Lester, Darryll Bravenboer and Neville Webb (2016):  Work-integrated degrees: context, engagement, practice and quality  Gloucester, QAA

 Article by Darryll Bravenboer and Stan Lester (2016):  “Towards an integrated approach to the recognition of professional competence and academic learning,”  Education + Training 58 (4), 409-421.


Work-based doctorates

The principles of negotiated work-based learning were extended to doctoral level in the late 1990s, and several universities now offer what can be termed work-based or practitioner doctorates.  These are often titled DProf (Doctor of Professional Studies or Professional Practice), though some use the more conventional PhD title.  Work-based doctorates differ from conventional PhDs in that they focus on practical issues facing the doctoral candidate rather than on research problems in an academic discipline, and they can emphasise development and change as much as research.  They also differ from conventional professional doctorates in not being limited to a specific professional field, and (typically) not including a taught component other than in relation to research and development.  Candidates are often already experts in their fields, and are looking to develop and communicate innovative practical solutions rather than necessarily contribute to a body of research;  if the PhD is characterised by making an original contribution to knowledge, the DProf can be described as making an original contribution to practice.  In turn this has implications for the relationship between candidates and academics, as the latter need to act more as advisors and mentors than as expert supervisors.

I completed my own DProf, in professional accreditation, at Middlesex University in 2002.  Since then I have worked on the development of the DProf at Middlesex, principally with Professor Carol Costley, and contributed to the theory of and research on practitioner doctorates through several papers, short studies and conference presentations. 

  Chapter by Stan Lester (2016):  “Practice as Research: developing the workplace project”, pp. 117-133 in V. Storey & K. Hesbol (eds.), Contemporary approaches to dissertation development and research methods. Hershey PA, IGI Global (2016)

  Article by Carol Costley & Stan Lester (2012):  “Work-based doctorates: professional extension at the highest levels,” Studies in Higher Education  37 (3), 257-269 

  Article by Stan Lester (2012):  “Creating original knowledge in and for the workplace,” Studies in Continuing Education 34 (3), 267-280

  Article by Stan Lester (2004):  “Conceptualising the practitioner doctorate," Studies in Higher Education 29 (6), 757-770.

  Link to Professional and Practice-based Doctorates Forum.


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