Flexible Learning: Employer Engagement

Source: The Higher Education Academy (HEA)
Source: The Higher Education Academy (HEA)

This is the fourth in a short series of posts on the work undertaken by the Higher Education Academy (HEA) on flexible learning.


The report on employer engagement and work-based learning (WBL) (Kettle, 2013) is the second in a short series of complementary reports from the HEA that go under the banner of “flexible pedagogies”. The report is guided by the HEA’s overarching research question:

Why and to what extent might flexible pedagogies be promoted, and in what ways?

The report makes reference to Leitch Report (Leitch, 2006) which highlighted the need for considerable improvement in skills at intermediate and higher levels if the United Kingdom (UK) was to remain competitive globally. Another reference was the recent Wilson Report (Wilson, 2012) which reinforced the need for stronger relationships between business and higher education (HE).

Moreover, a number of agendas (e.g. the Higher Ambitions report and the Students at the Heart of the System white paper) have been outlined by the present and previous UK governments. These have highlighted the importance of graduate skills and emphasised the need for HE providers to improve collaborative relationships with employers.

Defining ‘Employer Engagement’ and ‘Work-Based Learning’

According to the report (Kettle, 2013), employer engagement is best defined “as a range of activities, initiatives and approaches which are best conceptualised as a continuum” (p.4). Though it was noted that the term tended to be “nuanced” and was often “contested”.

However, the notion of employer engagement also encapsulates responsive teaching and learning developments for up-skilling and developing people already in work and fostering capability and attributes to enhance the employability of students in HE.

This definition has led towards a “typology of learners”:

  • The Model 1 Learner are already at work, they are employees and therefore have a dual identity; and
  • The Model 2 Learner are using a work-related learning activity to develop their knowledge, skills and understanding.

Thus, there is a three-way relationship between the higher education provider, the earner and the employer.

Finally, the report draws on the work of Brennan and Little (1996) in attempting to define work-based learning (WBL):

…linking learning to the work role, but this does not only mean preparing for a specific job. Three strands have been identified: learning for work, learning at work, and learning through work. (ibid., 1996:8)

The Report’s Recommendations

The report argues that considerable resources have been directed towards the employer engagement agenda and that the work-based learning aspect of it is enjoying considerable attention. In conclusion, the report’s author (Kettle, 2013) recommends that:

  • the academic community continues to identify and evaluate evidence-informed pedagogic approaches to both work-related and work-based learning;
  • institutional strategies for learning and teaching, including the use of ICT systems and web 2.0 technologies, are reviewed to assess the connections between these and the way teaching staff utilise and develop flexible pedagogies in the context of employer engagement;
  • examples of whole institutional approaches to employer engagement should be identified and explored within the context of the continuum outlined here to further the discussion around flexible pedagogies; and
  • evidence of student engagement with the development and delivery of flexible learning approaches for both work-based learning and work-related learning should be evaluated.


Brennan, J. & Little, B. (1996). A Review of Work Based Learning in Higher Education. Sheffield, England: Department for Education and Employment (DfEE). Available at: http://oro.open.ac.uk/11309/ [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Kettle, J. (2013). Flexible Pedagogies: Employer Engagement and Work-Based Learning. York, England: The Higher Education Academy (HEA). Available at: https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/flexible-pedagogies-employer-engagement-and-work-based-learning [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Leitch, S. (2006). Prosperity for all in the Global Economy – World Class Skills, (The Leitch Report) London, England: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (HMSO). Available at: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20070701082906/http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/independent_reviews/leitch_review/review_leitch_index.cfm [Accessed 17.3.2015].

Wilson, T. (2012). A Review of Business–University Collaboration, (The Wilson Report). London, England: Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/business-university-collaboration-the-wilson-review [Accessed 17.3.2015].