Stan Lester Developments






Dr Stan Lester




Professional competence

Work-based learning

*         Work-based/Work-integrated

*         Degree Apprenticeships

*         Negotiated work-based learning

*         Practitioner doctorates





Work-based learning at higher education level


It is now fairly well-accepted that learning that takes place at, through and in response to work can, if it meets the relevant criteria, be recognised towards academic awards at any level.  I have been involved in work-based learning developments at university level since the late 1990s, from approaches driven by individual contexts and aspirations such as negotiated work-based programmes and practitioner doctorates through to more curriculum-driven programmes such as Degree Apprenticeships.


Work-based’ or ‘Work-integrated’?

Work-based learning (WBL) has been described as “all and any learning that is situated in the workplace or arises directly out of workplace concerns” (Lester and Costley 2010).  Only a tiny fraction of this is related to higher education, but programmes can be created around WBL whether it is learning ‘in the flow of work’ or more planned learning in response to work concerns. 

Work-integrated learning (WIL) can be described as “approaches and strategies that integrate theory with the practice of work within a purposefully defined curriculum” (Patrick et al 2008).  WIL therefore starts with a predefined programme and generally uses work placements, internships or an on-and-off-job training programme so that the content is partly learned in the workplace. 

Integrated programmes such as Degree Apprenticeships have features of both WIL and WBL, but I argue (in a forthcoming paper) that they need to be conceptualised slightly differently as integrated professional development, or perhaps ‘learning-integrated work’.

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Degree Apprenticeships and integrated professional programmes

Degree Apprenticeships (DAs) were officially introduced in the UK in 2015, although some pre-existing programmes followed similar principles.  The basic premise of a DA is that it involves studying for a bachelor’s or master’s degree alongside full-time employment, typically in a training post.  There is growing recognition that the most effective approaches involve close integration of academic and practical learning and make effective use of digital media rather than using the ‘parallel but disconnected’ format familiar from day- and block-release courses.  The most popular DAs are currently management, engineering, information and communications technology, nursing and policing.  DAs are also are forming minority entry routes in many other professions including accountancy, law, surveying, medicine and architecture.

I have worked on several projects concerned with Degree Apprenticeships including leading a review for QAA of work-integrated degrees, the Edge Foundation funded study into sustaining degree apprenticeships, reviews led by Middlesex University, and with UVAC to extend the government-funded Apprenticeship Workforce Development Programme into higher education.

  Sustainable Degree Apprenticeships (report for the Edge Foundation by Darryll Bravenboer and Stan Lester, 2020)

  Creating conditions for sustainable Degree Apprenticeships in England, Higher Education, Skills and Work-based Learning (2020)

  “Degree apprenticeships are far from fake”, opinion piece in People Management (2020)

  Work-integrated degrees: context, engagement, practice and quality (report for QAA 2016)

  Towards an integrated approach to professional competence and academic qualification,  Education + Training (2016)

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Negotiated work-based learning

Negotiated work-based learning involves individuals or groups working 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 digital 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.  Negotiated programmes can vary from a small piece of work that leads to an undergraduate certificate through to master’s degrees and doctorates.  Work-based learning can pose a challenge to traditional university structures and ways of working;  as I argued 20 years ago 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.  Individual programmes have fallen off in recent years and learners have often been directed towards Degree Apprenticeships; the awaited introduction of lifelong learning loans may help revive this innovative and effective form of higher education.

In 1998-2001 I worked on 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.  More recently I have 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 the use of mobile devices for workplace learning.

  Reconsidering negotiated work-based learning in the digital age, summary conference paper (2022).

  A qualification system fit for adults? Revisiting some ideas from the University for Industry”, Higher Education, Skills and Work-based Learning (2015)

  Work-based learning at higher education level,” Studies in Higher Education  (2010)

  Negotiated work-based learning: from delivery to realisation,”  Capability  (2002).

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Practitioner 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 (often designated DProf).  Work-based doctorates differ from conventional PhDs in that they focus on high-level 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 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.

  Practice as Research: developing the workplace project, book chapter (2016)

  Work-based doctorates: professional extension at the highest levels Studies in Higher Education  (2012)

  Creating original knowledge in and for the workplace,” Studies in Continuing Education (2012)

  Conceptualising the practitioner doctorate," Studies in Higher Education (2004).

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© Stan Lester 2023