Teaching Undergraduate Work-Based Learners

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Tuesday, March 26, 2024
By David Steinberg
Photo by iStock/AJ_Watt
By offering undergraduate work-based degrees, business schools provide accessible, practice-oriented education to help employees transform their careers.
  • Scotland’s Graduate Apprenticeship provides opportunities for workers 16 and older to enroll in four-year bachelor’s degree programs, with selection criteria based on their career progression and work experience.
  • University-based business relationship managers help candidates negotiate time off to study with their employers, while workplace mentors and academic tutors help students complete individual learning agreements.
  • Delivered in partnership with employers, GA programs offer companies a means to reskill and upskill their workforces and allow employees to have university experiences while still on the job.


When I emigrated with my family from the United States to Scotland in 2016, I had no idea that I could pursue my passion for work-based learning and teaching not in an executive education program, but in an undergraduate degree program for full-time employees. However, with emerging technologies accelerating change in labor markets, it should have come as no surprise to me.

According to an article released by the Boston Consulting Group, reskilling has become a strategic imperative for organizations globally. And the World Economic Forum emphasizes that the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) has made upskilling especially critical, particularly in core human skills such as analytical and creative thinking.

In the United Kingdom, employers are responding to this need by partnering with secondary and tertiary educational institutions to provide a range of upskilling and reskilling opportunities. One higher education scheme, first introduced in 2017, is known as the Graduate Apprenticeship (GA) in Scotland, and as the Degree Apprenticeship in the rest of the U.K. Both are the culmination of a family of apprenticeship schemes throughout the U.K. that offer work-based learning during high school years.

Below, I describe how the GA program at Edinburgh Business School (EBS) at Heriot–Watt University works. Its structure is designed to prepare working adults in Scotland for the future of work.

The Graduate Apprenticeship

The Graduate Apprenticeship is a four-year degree called the Bachelor of Arts degree with Honours—abbreviated as MA (Hons). The MA (Hons) Business Management degree consists of 480 credits and culminates in a capstone project.

Business schools deliver GA programs fully online or in a blended format, depending on employer preferences. Our program at EBS is delivered fully online to serve candidates living throughout Scotland—such as those who live on Orkney Island and must take a ferry ride or plane fight just to reach the country’s northern coast.

Financing for the program is managed by the Scottish Funding Council and administered by the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS). Candidates apply annually for SAAS funding, which is drawn from the U.K. government’s Apprenticeship Levy. Employers with payrolls of greater than 3 million GBP (about 3.83 million USD) pay 0.5 percent of their payrolls annually into the levy.

All employers, whether or not they pay into the levy, receive a 15,000 GBP (19,175 USD) allowance per annum to put toward approved apprenticeships. This allowance helps offset levy payments for employers with payrolls above the limit; firms with payrolls of less than 3 million GBP are mainly subsidized. As employees, GA candidates receive salaries that are dictated by the market.

Skills Development Scotland, the Scottish government’s national skills agency, develops program frameworks for degrees in disciplines such as business management, software design, data science, and engineering, all with guidance from industry. The agency then offers these frameworks to universities for consideration, so that each school can determine whether to develop its own program. The Scottish Funding Council manages the annual allocation of GA funding to schools based on, for example, market demand and each university’s capacity to deliver a GA program.

Characteristics of a GA Candidate

The GA program is not a short-hop trip, as one might describe workshops and continued professional development. Rather, it’s a long-haul flight—a four-year journey in which GA candidates agree to have their semesterly performance data shared with their employers. No pressure! For that reason, successful candidates must be resilient and goal-oriented and possess superb time management skills.

GA candidates must be at least 16 years of age and work full-time in the public, private, or third sector in Scotland. Candidates just out of high school tend to have finished their Scottish Highers or Advanced Highers, equivalent to A-Levels and Advanced A-Levels in the U.K. and, roughly, to Advanced Placement (AP) exams in the U.S. But candidates with 10 years of work experience might only have the equivalent of a high school diploma.

The GA program is not a short-hop trip. Rather, it’s a long-haul flight—a four-year journey, in which GA candidates agree to have their semesterly performance data shared with their employers.

GA candidates with several years of work experience at their organizations often note that they have reached a ceiling that has blocked their career progression. They speak about lacking the confidence that they see in their colleagues who have degrees.

These candidates often lament the circumstances that led them to take full-time jobs rather than follow their friends to university. But under the GA scheme, paid work and degree-based learning are not mutually exclusive. Our GA candidates can learn and participate in campus-based extracurricular activities such as clubs and sports; some even inquire about living on campus. They are enjoying the best of both worlds.

Selection Criteria

Universities partner with employers to help them recruit GA candidates via advertisements that highlight the job specifications for positions and entry requirements for degree programs. Employers also select internal candidates to grow talent from within the firm.

Because each GA candidate’s story is unique, the admissions process must be personalized. For candidates who have only minimal formal qualifications, schools must translate career progression into academic potential to assure that candidates, no matter how motivated, can complete the program. Applicants might be asked to submit writing samples to demonstrate critical thinking skills. Or they might need to complete a foundation course; if they pass, they move on to year one of the program.

On the other end of the spectrum, candidates can receive course exemptions for past career progression and professional qualifications—or even be granted direct entry into an advanced year. However, to do so, they must complete a rigorous process of mapping their work experience and qualifications to the learning outcomes of each course.

If candidates lack professional qualifications, they still can seek course exemptions. If they want credit for their experience in, for example, project management, they can take part in informal vivas in which they describe how they have applied project management theory and techniques in their careers.

Because the program attracts employees with such wide-ranging backgrounds and experiences, the typical GA cohort includes members from several generations. They can learn just as much from each other as they do from their instructors.

Employer-University Partnerships

Well before a candidate sets foot in the classroom, a business relationship manager (BRM) representing the university negotiates with the employer to forge an employer support agreement that specifies the obligations of both parties. On the employer’s part, this includes providing a candidate with a weekly day off from paid work to attend class and work on assessments.

Large employers have talent management teams that forge such agreements with several universities. For small- to medium-sized enterprises, the BRM can co-create the job specifications that align with the program’s learning outcomes.

The BRM also can help employers identify workplace mentors who provide candidates with coaching and support. If the hiring manager has multiple candidates for one job posting, the BRM or program director can help identify the best hire.

A Triangular Relationship

Once GA candidates are enrolled, they each enter into a triangular partnership that consists of the candidate, a workplace mentor, and an academic tutor. This group meets at the end of each of the academic year’s three terms to assure that the candidate is on track and thriving in the program.

Workplace mentors meet with candidates regularly (preferably monthly), helping them pair course assessments with workplace problems. At EBS, mentors are encouraged to join candidates at annual induction sessions, which address common difficulties such as how to cope if marks are lower than expected or how to balance job responsibilities with coursework. Additionally, EBS invites workplace mentors to serve on an advisory board for the GA that meets annually to review current programs, identify skills gaps, and discuss potential new offerings.

Each candidate produces an individual learning agreement that includes academic and work-based S.M.A.R.T. goals, as well as activities designed to help the candidate attain those goals.

Academic tutors, who often have some work experience, help candidates navigate the curriculum and ensure that the candidate-mentor relationship is working well. Tutors meet with employees and their employers each semester; they also ask candidates to provide video tours of their workplaces. In this way, tutors gain a clearer idea of candidates’ paid work.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tutors made site visits in person to observe candidates in action. As an academic tutor myself, I once visited the worksite of a student who ran a National Health Service clinic deep inside a prison in Edinburgh. However, video tours now allow us to reduce travel and keep more sustainable practices in mind.

Supported by the mentor and tutor, each candidate produces an individual learning agreement (ILA) during the first semester and updates the document annually. The ILA resembles a standard employee professional development review that includes the candidate’s short-, medium-, and long-term academic and work-based S.M.A.R.T. goals; the ILA also outlines activities designed to help the candidate attain those goals.

The Role of GA Faculty

EBS faculty view the GA program as a “living laboratory,” in which they can support their research by posing questions based on candidates’ academic specialties. The GA candidates relish the opportunity to share their views about their industries and employers in a free exchange of ideas. Right now, faculty and GA candidates are discussing AI, from its contribution to job loss to the extent to which AI might manage humans at work.

Faculty gear all learning content to undergraduates and cover the basics at a reasonable pace, but in ways that trigger instant knowledge transfer. Just as in executive education, GA students should be able to learn something new in class on Friday and apply it at work the following Monday. Professors record all classes for those who are unable to attend, but these recordings are not shared beyond the course roster and teaching team.

During the program’s final year, faculty supervise capstone projects, under strict nondisclosure agreements. These projects showcase candidates’ research skills, address workplace problems and phenomena, and demonstrate candidates’ change agency. Faculty often describe supervising these projects as a privilege.

After each term, faculty receive feedback from class liaisons, which they use to refine the learning experience for future cohorts.

Assessment Design

Faculty must balance the need for candidates to attain learning outcomes with the high-pressure realities candidates face as full-time workers. At EBS, they strike this balance by adopting a formative/summative assessment pattern. The formative piece, due at mid-term, is optional; the summative piece, due at the end of the term, is the basis of the entire grade.

Candidates receive copious feedback on their formative pieces, which they can embed in their summative pieces, giving them a head start. For example, if the final project requires the application of design thinking to solve a workplace problem, students could submit proposals for the project plus a short literature review at mid-term. We have found that students who hand in something at mid-term earn higher grades overall.

My GA team believes that learning can be assessed by methods other than the use of traditional essays and exams. This is critically important for GA candidates who have been away from the classroom for many years and are accustomed to being evaluated by key performance indicators in their jobs.

For example, instead of using the Socratic method to teach commercial law, our course leader has adopted a case method approach to teaching commercial law that allows candidates to self-discover the intricacies of contract law on their own terms. The course leader assesses candidates based on how well they apply their skills to solve business problems with legal solutions. This subtle shift helps candidates learn key aspects of the subject in ways that are familiar to them.

The Importance of Early Intervention

No matter how ambitious and resilient candidates are, life can get in the way. Detecting issues early is key and requires our program to gather information from a variety of disconnected sources. That’s why EBS created GA-NET, an early warning system.

Modeled after the Pacific Tsunami Warning System, GA-NET helps us detect at-risk candidates and intervene before candidates make the decision to withdraw. A development team using Microsoft Power Apps and Sharepoint created a prototype of the system based on a rigorous Data Protection Impact Assessment.

GA candidates typically receive promotions not just after graduation, but increasingly while pursuing their degrees.

GA-NET aggregates a range of datapoints—which four program coordinators collect from faculty—on a single dashboard. We track signals such as assessment submissions, academic performance, ILA meeting attendance and completion, overall class attendance, outcomes of tutor meetings, attendance at induction events, and petitions for short-term mitigating circumstances and long-term suspension of study. Members of the EBS GA leadership team meet monthly to discuss all at-risk candidates and decide on appropriate mitigation strategies.

Redefining Working and Learning

The program’s course assessments offer candidates opportunities to solve workplace problems, as they close the gap between their practical experience and their understanding of business management theory. This results in a significant return on investment for both employers and employees.

In fact, GA candidates typically receive promotions not just after graduation, but increasingly while pursuing their degrees. As one of our GA alums put it, “I learned what questions to ask in meetings at work and was no longer intimidated by situations.”

As we begin to redefine employment amid the rise of AI, upskilling and reskilling will continue to be priorities for organizations. Programs such as the Graduate Apprenticeship address the upskilling challenge in ways that benefit all parties involved. It ensures that universities maintain and strengthen their connections to business. It gives employees access to degree-based education and inspires many graduates to pursue lifelong learning after graduation. And it supplies employers with the skilled workers they will require to thrive and adapt during the era of AI.

David Steinberg
Principal, Reykjavik Sky Consulting, and Associate Professor in Contemporary Business Practices and Senior Programme Director of EBS Graduate Apprenticeships, Edinburgh Business School, Heriot-Watt University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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