The impact of the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning on the development of work-related learning in the UK

Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning

ISSN: 2042-3896

Article publication date: 1 March 2011



Armsby, P. (2011), "The impact of the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning on the development of work-related learning in the UK", Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, Vol. 1 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The impact of the Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning on the development of work-related learning in the UK

Article Type: Editorial From: Higher Education, Skills and Work-Based Learning, Volume 1, Issue 3.


The Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) initiative in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (HEFCE, 2003a, 2004) aimed to develop teaching and learning and invest in practice to produce benefits for students, teachers and institutions. The background of this initiative is discussed in more detail in Murray Saunders overview in this special edition. Evaluations of its success have taken place (Saunders et al., 2007) and following self-assessments the final report on their combined impact is due to be published in October 2011. Of the 81 CETLs it is not possible to say how many had some dimension of work-related learning (WRL) involved in them, however, in a recent report (Butcher et al., 2011) reviewing the “good practice in employability and enterprise development by CETLs”, it notes 22 fell in to this category. This is not surprising given the government impetus to make university curricula more relevant to employers and have universities provide employment-ready graduates. This special edition was conceived in order to:

  • investigate what development the WRL CETLs had made in progressing university curricula towards learning for work; and

  • to outline what the future of WRL in much of the UK's HE might look like.

The case study approach was chosen to provide an opportunity for those involved in the WRL CETLs to outline what they believe to be their most significant achievements, and to make available a bank of ideas and developments for HE practitioners wishing to develop WRL.

There are a number of other drivers that have recently affected the development of WRL in HE. Following the Government's White Paper “The future of higher education” (HEFCE, 2003b) the Strategic Development Fund (SDF) was created to support change and innovation in the sector, including closer connections with employers. Similarly, the relatively new “impact” factor in England's Research Excellence Framework, designed to promote real-world outcomes, could encourage teaching, learning and research that is more focused on development. Factors mitigating against these drivers include the academy's focus on pure rather than applied research and with the disciplines and subject-based knowledge (Becher, 2001). At a time of massive cut backs and attendant change in HE there are few more contentious issues than those surrounding the influence of industry, work and workplaces on HE. This edition does not set out to discuss the arguments for and against a WRL curriculum.

This editorial gives a brief overview of the papers in this special edition and endeavours to outline their dominating themes. It also reports on a focus group discussion undertaken with several of the authors. Given the special edition's aims, the focus group was used as another device to find out what some of those who had been most involved in the movement towards WRL in HE believed to be significant, especially in relation to the legacy of their labours.

The papers

We may assume that various existing typologies of work-based learning (Brennan et al., 2006; Little and Brennan, 1996; Nixon et al., 2006) would be useful to help us examine the range of examples used in these papers. However, of the 13 cases included in the five papers, few of them, if any, fit neatly into the available categories in Table I. This shows the range and complexity of the strategies being developed by HE practitioners to incorporate WRL into the curriculum. However, it also indicates that these developments are taking place within HE rather than within the workplace that features in all of the eight examples in the table. The papers vary in the focus of their case studies. Vincent Carpentier, Norbert Pachler, Karen Evans and Caroline Daly's paper, “Work-learn-educate: the WLE Centre of Excellence's conceptualisation of work based learning”, focuses on three large-scale research and development projects that attempt to theorise WRL and crystallise the underlying concepts that should help enable the development of pedagogy in this area. Building on the Institute of Education's expertise in researching and theorising teaching and learning, this paper has been able to consider the development of WRL from a wider perspective.

The first case study, “Putting knowledge to work” focuses on investigating the challenges in integrating subject-based and work-based knowledge. The work recognises the importance of context as a starting point for knowledge, and how knowledge needs to be recontextualised for different contexts. The second picks up a topical education theme of e-learning; the Mobile Learning project develops a theoretical and conceptual framework for educational uses of mobile technology, including understanding of the most appropriate and effective uses for work-based learners, such as “just-in-time” and “just-for-me” learning. The final case, a Medical Learning Practice Network to enable knowledge transfer between educationalists and medical practitioners investigates the social interaction and cultural contexts that help learning connections to flourish. These case studies capitalise on using networks to connect different perspectives that can help elucidate effective approaches to encourage WRL. Key to improving practice will be making sure that the resulting developments in theory are translated into workable approaches and conveyed to practitioners designing new HE programmes.

David Laughton's paper, “CETL for employability: identifying and evaluating institutional impact” focuses on how institutional change was implemented through policy, strategy and pedagogy. Case studies are selected to illustrate the micro-, meso- and macro-approaches to developing impact. Case study 1 at the micro-level in the university outlines the Venture Matrix Development, which includes a range of facets, but centres on “student group activities focused on entrepreneurial ventures to identify value added activities with market potential”. Student groups trade goods or services in an internal market, but also use clients outside of the university. Its success as a tool to develop WRL is partly measured by its popularity with students, but a range of evaluations show that it helped students develop employability skills. The second meso-level case reports on the revalidation of the business school's undergraduate programme portfolio to emphasise employability, and the issues staff had with doing this. The employability pathway for all courses included building in key skills at HE level 4, preparation for employment such as CV development at level 5 and a placement year or WBL module at level 6. The final year is described as a “springboard into work” and includes career management skills. The third macro-level case relates to establishing employability as one of three key university values, and key element of its teaching and learning strategy. This three-layered approach neatly illustrates the range of perspectives involved in developing WRL in HE and the different levels it is required to operate on. Hearts and minds need to be won with people in each of the different hierarchies in the university, as Murray Saunders comments in this issue, with “carrots, sticks, sermons and partnerships”. Also, Butcher et al. (2011) agree that acceptance at all levels, perhaps especially at senior management level, is required for the institutional change that is necessary to integrate WRL and employability in HE.

The typology of work based and WRL presented in David Laughton's paper incorporates the categories included in Table I and extends the range of possibilities further to include more of the internally (HE) focused opportunities. This is a valuable, practical list of options for practitioners to consider, to assist them in programme development.

Norman Jackson's paper, “Recognising a more complete education through a lifewide learning award” focuses on one single case study that epitomises the Surrey CETL and focuses on recognising all human experience in a university award. The principle of recognising learning from experiences occurring in different contexts is also taken up in Murray Saunder's piece. For some, universities should focus on being producers and disseminators of knowledge. Recognising experience from outside the formal academic curriculum means that they become institutions that merely legitimise existing knowledge (Armsby et al., 2006). The lifewide learning curriculum predominantly sits outside the candidate's accredited degree, thus the subject of study is not constrained or explicitly impinged upon, and WRL is situated outside of the mainstream curriculum. Where knowledge claims are situated is a signifier of their significance within the operating system.

The lifewide learning approach aims to recognise experiential learning, in this case as extra-curricula. Recognising prior learning within the curriculum is relatively well used in work-based learning programmes and is often described as good practice as it is a student-centred approach, but it is not presently popular or much available in the rest of HE. This may be because in these cash strapped times we cannot afford the university staff time to work with students on an individual basis to facilitate their claims. But, more importantly, there may be an issue with the nature of the learning brought forward to be acknowledged. Knowledge that fits within the existing mainstream curriculum may be more readily acceptable than knowledge that derives from workplace practices. And as Murray Saunders comments, these papers to one extent or another, move practice to centre stage. It may be “dangerous for universities which conceive purpose in the certification of disciplined knowledge which is within their gift to organise and control” to recognise WRL (Gibbs and Armsby, 2011). Current research internationally in this area suggests that there is good practice in the accreditation of experiential learning, but there is some way to go in enabling it more widely in curricula, and work-based learning is relatively advanced in this endeavour (Wihak et al., 2011).

Sibyl Coldham's paper, “CETL for professional learning from the workplace: using activity theory to facilitate curriculum development” focuses on her university's staff learning and change in understanding of work-integrated learning (WIL). Using Engestrom's theory she explains WIL as the activity under consideration and the CETL facilitator as working with the group to reconceptualise the system. The suggestion is that many academic staff saw placements as situating work outside of the subject-based curriculum and therefore outside their responsibility, and so the CETL worked to facilitate ways of using work as a tool for learning within the university to refresh and enhance learning outcomes. The case studies report various inventive ways of doing this in modern languages, law and photography. In case one, Multilingua, a new curriculum for modern languages focuses on contextualising language development through themes that put life and work centrally into the learning materials. In case two, a student law office enables students to connect with case work, legal practice experience and placements, and in case three, Westphoto photography library and agency started as an extra-curricular opportunity to connect with work environments. Interestingly, the strategy of using work as a tool for learning led to WRL being further imbedded in the curriculum, for example, in case two, a new route to a law degree was developed, and in case three an option module focused on work in the photo library and agency was devised. The paper suggests that conventional WRL options like placements may not always connect with the curriculum as effectively as might be hoped for, and other strategies for using work to stimulate learning experiences may be more valuable.

Finally, Barbara Workman, Pauline Armsby, Alan Durrant and Philip Frame's paper, “CETL for Work Based Learning: Enhancing Innovation and Creativity in Teaching and Learning”, focuses on what academic staff in the wider university and the work-based learning department did to develop innovative curricula in work-based learning. Building on expertise in providing programmes of work-based learning as a field of study, the case studies show how work-based contexts can provide powerful opportunities to learn. Case one explores how social networking can be used effectively to develop dance professionals. Case two shows how evaluating a professional doctorate by public works offered further opportunities to widen the epistemological boundaries of those involved with it. Case three outlines how students can develop reflective practice through any purposeful work using an on line tool that explores relevant domains (skills, attitudes, knowledge and emotions). All three cases have the learners situated in the workplace, thus learning is derived from practice. In relation to this, Murray Saunders picks up on several connected themes in his discussion on learning deriving from cycles of practice; collaborative learning and boundary crossing.

Dominating themes

My reading of the papers suggests three dominating themes:

  1. 1.

    The workplace as a site of learning and how this connects to the university. HE institutions are accustomed to understanding themselves as just that; institutions that autonomously provide higher education. That is not to say that they did not previously connect with industry or the professions, but these papers illustrate the development of a different quality of engagement with workplaces. Even if they are not always used as sites of learning they are now more frequently being used as a stimulus for learning.

  2. 2.

    Employability; preparing students for the world of work. Social trends, embodied in such things as the recent government requirements to make apparent institutional provision for employability, promote the understanding of education as a preparation for work rather than for life. The new student-funding regime is likely to intensify this perception as “customers” in our consumerist society are concerned about their ability to gain work and repay their fees.

  3. 3.

    Changing the university. CETLs were instigated to develop teaching and learning. This involves change, which in large, predominantly bureaucratic organisations like universities is never easy. The papers in this issue and the authors’ focus group reported below evidence that the change involved in developing WRL in HE appears to be particularly difficult. Various methods for change have been employed including using small teams, enabling projects where there was an interest, and top down and bottom up pressure, because as Norman Jackson comments, “bringing about change on any significant scale is difficult, messy and full of contest, conflict, avoidance and non-engagement”.

Authors focus group

Prior to writing the case studies and papers in this edition I interviewed five of the authors in a focus group discussion. The semi-structured process asked participants views, based on their experience of running the WRL CETLs and drawing on their potential case studies, about teaching and learning and the future of WRL in HE. One author sent written comments so the following results are based on six respondents.


The groups were unanimous in saying that the clearest achievement that they were most proud of was the developments and innovations they had been able to facilitate within their institutions, some of which are outlined in the papers. The connection between these and external recognition and impact was also highlighted as important, although it was agreed that it was difficult to achieve systemic change within their organisations and more widely.


These most often connected to the frustrations involved in trying to manage a finite project that was designed to change stakeholders’ opinions about WRL in HE, but also included more standard project management concerns:

  • wasted time through slow starts caused by issues such as problems with making the capital spend for designing appropriate spaces to work;

  • issues with managing teams and workers on the various projects funded by the CETL, including such things as models of secondment that were problematic and “power struggles” between different groups;

  • inability to get senior managers to buy into strategies that involved risks; and

  • regrets over not providing more tangible outcomes of the achievements.

These themes illustrate the level of change management involved in the WRL CETLs, which was also recognised in the recent report on the impact of employability CETLs (Butcher et al., 2011). These had effects on learners, the university and the workplace, and participants were asked what they believed to be the main impacts on these groups.

Effect on learners

Interestingly, the affect on learners was mostly presented through the “new perspectives provided by (newly) professionalised staff”. While there was some disappointment in the CETL teams that students were not as engaged as desired, as evidenced by, for example, student evaluation results, overall it was felt that many more students now had more opportunities to develop employability-enhancing skills and attributes through their HE programmes. A shift in the agenda of these HE establishments was evident and the case studies in this edition concur with Butcher et al. (2011) in illustrating how teaching and learning changed to provide new programmes that connected more effectively with the workplace and develop different facets of the learners. Murray Saunders comments, that these papers show there is good evidence that learning was influenced. But a remaining question is, how has this affected the education received and indeed, desired by its “consumers”?

Effect on university

It seems that the focus-group participants conceived of the university mostly as the teaching and learning staff within it. It was agreed that the drive had been to develop the staff by broadening their knowledge and understanding of WRL. This was achieved through a variety of devices, for example, providing a critical friend to enable critical reflection and collaborating with colleagues to enrich creativity (Clouder et al., 2008). One issue that emerged was the importance of staff development to be an effective WRL tutor. Academic staff can often be immersed in their disciplines rather than any professions that might connect to that discipline, and it was agreed that tutoring WRL involved different skills than lecturing in a subject area and required careful nurturing.

Some respondents were more pessimistic about the continued influence of their WRL CETL in their university and more widely, others recognised “patchy” development in their HE institution that was likely to be sustained, while others suggested that their work would have a lasting impact in the sector. Some of the papers in this edition, notably those from the Institute of Education and the University of Surrey illustrate this latter view.

Effect on workplaces

In most cases effects on workplaces were seen as one step removed or secondary to the main thrust of the WRL CETLs focus. The case studies used in the papers illustrate this nicely. The CETLs work was often about developing the curriculum to include knowledge and understanding relevant to workplaces, but as noted above, it did not include actual workplaces. Workplaces would be affected “indirectly, by (academics) developing new models, through staff developing new bodies of knowledge used to improve student experience”. Two of the case studies in Barbara Workman, Pauline Armsby, Alan Durrant and Philip Frame's paper are exceptions as they report on programmes that are designed for work-based learners, and we can see some evidence that candidates’ learning has a direct effect on their work practices. The workplace is perhaps a natural site for learning for work, but is less well used for learning to prepare for work.

The difficulty of getting industry involved was recognised by the authors and further government support such as the SDF funding has been made available for successful bidders to assist with this undertaking. This funding is (in 2011) nearing its completion, and following the downturn in the economy has proven difficult to deliver on. The papers in this special edition show that the CETLs aim to develop teaching and learning in the area of WRL were successful. But for real progress, it could be argued that workplaces needs to be more involved, not just as sites of investigation for academics to derive knowledge and theory about what constitutes appropriate learning and teaching, but as stakeholders in the joint endeavour of defining what an “education” is. Those difficulties bought about through HEIs and workplaces operating as different systems, as discussed in Sibyl Coldham's paper, will need attention. For some this may sound heretical, but for others who, like David Laughton, believe “a key (moral) purpose of higher education is preparing students to be functionally mature individuals so they can succeed in their chosen careers”, it is common sense to see education as for the individual and his or her endeavours.

Overall legacy of the WRL CETLs

Interviewees reported that the WRL CETLs had provided legitimacy for the work-based learning and employability agendas such that it would be more possible for universities to “embrace WRL in a theoretical and practice based way”. When probed on the extent of this step change in acceptance, it was felt that progress had been made across the sector. Some evidence for this was in the University of London's Institute of Education doing extensive research and development in this area. The UK's pre-1992 Polytechnics like Middlesex, Sheffield Hallam and Westminster Universities that are featured in this special edition might be expected to take up the employability agenda, but attention by the older universities suggests a sector wide movement. Interestingly, as noted above, it was these older universities that felt more confident about the lasting impact of their work. The Institute of Education's contributions focused on research, which is perhaps more congruent with their ongoing practice agenda than the other CETLs, and thus more sustainable. Evidence-based research is important to underpin developments, but as we have noted, making changes to the curriculum and the practice of learning and teaching through systemic change poses a real challenge.

It was felt that the projects begun in these institutions provided an opportunity to “consolidate existing areas of research (with WRL) and develop new fields of enquiry” in areas such as learning technologies. Similar to the findings of Clouder et al. (2008), there was a sense that networks between and across universities had developed that would support the ongoing work of developing teaching and learning and imbedding WRL in the curriculum.

The future of WRL in HE

The special issue set out to explore what developments the WRL CETLs have made in progressing university curricula towards learning for work. A number of examples have been provided that appear to have made an important local and in some cases national impact. Also, these developments seem to be better embedded in universities than they were before. Clearly, a full evaluation would provide firmer evidence of their lasting effects, but there can be no substitute for more in-depth research on WRL and the most effective attendant pedagogic approaches.

This issue also set out to discover what the future of WRL in much of the UK's HE might be. While the CETLs have been responsible for considerable development in including WRL in HE it may be premature to declare that there has been full permeation and thus there is no longer a need for CETLs or some other driver for development. Issues related to change management in universities appear to be prominent in taking the WRL agenda forward.

It seems likely that employability will remain high on the agenda of the government, employers and citizens. University staff may continue to go with this imperative more or less willingly, although they will quite rightly continue to question the place of WRL and any other policies and practices that impinge on what constitutes HE. We are likely to require a range of approaches and techniques for the variety of universities, HE level programmes offered and individuals undertaking study. At a fundamental level, if we want a HE to be emancipatory, it needs to ensure its recipients develop knowledge and understanding; cognitive skills to effectively process the knowledge, and practical skills to enable the user to put what is known into practice. Without the ability to take action, knowledge can be impotent.

Pauline ArmsbyGuest Editor

Further reading

Bluteau, P. and Krumins, M.A. (2008), “Engaging academics in developing excellence: releasing creativity through reward and recognition”, Journal of Higher and Further Education, Vol. 32 No. 4, pp. 415-26


Armsby, P., Costley, C. and Garnett, J. (2006), “The legitimisation of knowledge: a work based learning perspective of APEL”, International Journal of Lifelong Learning and Education, Vol. 25 No. 4, pp. 369-83

Becher, T. (2001), Academic Tribes and Territories: Intellectual Inquiry and the Cultures of Disciplines, Open University Press, Philadelphia, PA

Brennan, J., Little, B., Connor, H., de Weert, E., Delve, S., Harris, J., Josselyn, B., Ratcliffe, N. and Scesa, A. (2006), Towards a Strategy for Workplace Learning: Report to HEFCE by CHERI and KPMG, Higher Education Funding Council for England, Bristol

Butcher, L., Smith, J., Kettle, J. and Burton, L. (2011), “Review of good practice in employability and enterprise development by CETLs. Higher Education Academy”, available at: (accessed 10 October 2011)

Clouder, L., Martin, O. and Tait, J. (2008), “Embedding CETLs in a performance oriented culture in higher education: reflections on finding creative space”, British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 34 No. 5, pp. 635-50

Gibbs, P. and Armsby, P. (2011), “Recognition is deserved, qualifications are merited; where does that leave accreditation”, European Journal of Education, Vol. 46 No. 2

HEFCE (2003a), Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Formal Consultation, Higher Education Funding Council for England, Bristol

HEFCE (2003b), “The future of higher education”, available at: (accessed 10 October 2011)

HEFCE (2004), Centres for Excellence in Teaching and Learning: Invitation to Bid for Funds, HEFCE, Bristol

Little, B. and Brennan, J. (1996), A Review of Work Based Learning in Higher Education, Department for Education and Employment, Sheffield

Nixon, I., Smith, K., Stafford, R. and Camm, S., and KSA Partnership (2006), “Work based learning: illuminating the higher education landscape”, HEA report, Education Academy, York, available at: (accessed 10 October 2011).

Saunders, M., Trowler, P., Ashwin, P., Machell, J., Williams, S. and Knight, P. (2007), The National Evaluation of the CETL Programme 2005–2010: First Formative Phase, CSET in the Department of Educational Research, Lancaster and Open University, Lancester

Wihak, C., Harris, J. and Breier, M. (2011), Researching the Recognition of Prior Learning: International Perspectives, NIACE, Leicester

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