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Business spotlight: enriching learning through work integration

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 14 Aug 2020

Will Holt is the Dean of Pearson Business School, a higher education institution on its way to becoming a university. He emphasises the value of work-integrated learning.

Will Holt is focused on bringing together the real world of work and the classroom within a higher education framework, with executive learning in the mix too. “We enable richer work-based experience for those who study with us, either in the form of a degree, a post-graduate degree or a short course,” explains Holt, who is Dean of Pearson Business School.

“A lot of our learners struggle to find opportunities to apply what they have learned – from a textbook, an online course or a classroom-based course – to real companies,” he says. “That is why experiential learning is so important. It also helps students to build a CV, and gain or apply experience so that they become a master of their profession.”

He is emphatic that students learn just as much from the workplace as they do from teaching. With that in mind, Pearson Business School invests time heavily in building professional networks with a mix of prestigious organisations (and start-ups), to bring together learners, often young learners who are crying out for the opportunity to demonstrate what they can do, and employers. There may not always be internships or job roles available at the end of them. However, there is often the opportunity for student and partner organisations to work together on smaller projects.

“We have a lot of learners who are younger – under 25 – but equally, employers have also used degree apprenticeships to help employees shift from a traditional path to a more senior management role,” he says. For example, Pearson Business School provides a lot of senior leader degree apprenticeships for the NHS.

Commenting on the demand for formal, portable, qualifications, around softer skills like leadership, resilience and negotiating, Holt says demand has increased. However, badging skills is one thing, but demonstrating experience in the workplace is another. This brings us back to authentic experiences gained and demonstrated in the workplace, but also, importantly, candidates being able to demonstrate those skills during the recruitment process, rather than just relying on certification.

“You can certify skills and experience artificially, but its efficacy is still up for debate. The true test is can someone successfully demonstrate the right skills appropriately in an authentic environment,” he says.

While students primarily come to Pearson Business School for employability post-qualification, what do partners look for? In terms of degree apprenticeships, employers are firstly looking for a pipeline. 

“We help partner companies find strong candidates from diverse backgrounds,” he says. “Whereas some institutions will tend to screen based on academic performance to date, we have an admissions process whereby you can gain a place on one of our courses by demonstrating what you can do now.”

This process involves a series of tests that examine motivation and ability regardless of academic record. “That is very attractive to a lot of employers. It is about providing employees who will excel in their jobs and who can add something different to their organisations.

He continues: “We are also very good at reducing a very large list of applications down to a relatively short list based on an employer’s requirements.”

All the employer schemes and masters courses include an explicit method of bringing together classroom-based learning with work-based learning. Modules are carefully designed to blend this learning experience. Lecturers are mostly from the professions. “The vast majority of our faculty staff have a professional background alongside their teaching experience,” he says.

The Business School is part of Pearson College London. It offers a range of undergraduate and post-graduate degrees, degree apprenticeships and short courses, and belongs to Pearson, a FTSE 100 company. Pearson itself is a learning company.

Over the last few months, Holt has focused on nailing down what digital learning will look like – and is already looking like given the break-neck speed of implementation following the pandemic – for higher education students, but also students at different stages of their careers.

“There are a lot of benefits to online learning,” he says, “but equally this period has shown that the classroom has not been fully replicated – or perhaps can’t be fully replicated in an online environment.” While we have all appreciated the value of technology in recent months, we have also learned its limitations.

Pearson Business School has been teaching exclusively online since March. A recent survey revealed that some students would not be able to return to the classroom for a long time; others are keen to return soon. It is a complicated situation, riddled with social distancing restrictions, and will have to flex.

The upshot is the Pearson Business School plan to offer live online learning but a weekly opportunity for face-to-face learning for those who want it, subject to changes in government guidance. Holt concedes that it is incredibly challenging to fill in the blanks that online cannot satisfy. The social side – especially for new students – is going to be much reduced. And being able to read the room in an online environment is tricky both in the world of learning and the world of work. We are all struggling with that.

Balance, blending and having options for learning are, says Holt, the way forward. Especially as multiple careers across lengthening working lives become the norm, and there will be complex learning needs resulting from that.