Course Guidance: Going to the office to get a degree: Karen Gold finds that many firms are awarding employees with degrees endorsed by universities, and speaks to one working student

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The Independent Online
IF YOU cannot get a degree from a university, would you be satisfied with a BA Hons from the Milk Marketing Board? Or a BSc from Lloyds Bank? You do not stop learning because you move from the classroom to a job, and enlightened employers and universities are increasingly linking up to prove it.

More than 100 top companies are believed to run 'in-company' degree or diploma schemes. Companies invite university lecturers from relevant faculties to assess the academic value of employee training courses and projects. Several years of courses and projects might be worth two-thirds of a degree or more. The university will decide what is missing to meet degree standards, provide it, or oversee company trainers providing it, and then award the degree.

'As long as the degree quality is there, people need never walk across the university threshold,' says Dr Robert Allen, director of education and training at the University of Greenwich. Greenwich recently saw its first 13 Woolwich Building Society students graduate, most of them with 2:1s.

The Woolwich students added 18 months' part-time study on to their company training courses in order to receive Greenwich's BA Business Studies. Competition to get on the course was fierce, says Dr Allen. The Woolwich picked potential high-fliers who had gone into work straight from school but could compete with graduates if they gained a degree.

Greenwich runs similar schemes for brewery firms, supporting an MSc in brewery management, for the Milk Marketing Board, and for practising physiotherapists wanting a degree. 'Many students are in higher education part-time, but this is also giving credit for what you do in worktime,' says Dr Allen.

Few people realise how many part-time students do combine work with higher education these days. Government figures show there were 419,000 part-time students in universities and colleges in 1990 compared with 727,000 full-time students. More than one student in three now studies part-time.

Almost 100,000 take Open University courses, many of them to extend their work skills. 'The OU markets more materials to companies and institutions for training purposes than through its undergraduate teaching programme,' says Dr Derek Pollard, director of the OU validation service.

The service advises companies and employees on building work-based degree programmes. 'If you want to get a degree while working, you should look for an employer who wants to see in-company training validated by a university, and who will look at combining their company training with more academic courses,' advises Dr Pollard.

British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce did just that when they asked Bristol Polytechnic for a link scheme into its HND engineering. The promise of dayrelease and a guaranteed HND place has helped the companies recruit and retain technicians previously hesitating between choosing work or higher education.

In fact Bristol has a whole range of part-time study opportunities. People with HNDs in computing and bio-medical science can move up to a degree two evenings a week or in blocks of a week at a time over two years.

BA Combined Studies at Bristol recruits part-time students with a flexible attitude to previous qualifications, from the age of 18, on to subjects ranging from literary studies, business, psychology, sociology, art history, languages and environmental studies.

Attending two evenings a week you can take three modules a year, leading to a certificate with six modules in two years, or a degree with 15 modules in five years. Each module costs pounds 150, so one year costs pounds 450 - not that different from a full-time student loan.

Large employers often contribute to course fees as a way of keeping self-improving staff. Employees in small and medium-sized firms will also soon be eligible for training credits from the Government's TECs - about pounds 100 a head for vocationally relevant courses.

That will not cover a degree, but it will pay for shorter courses that can be taken into account when building up a degree. Geoff Layer, head of credit accumulation and transfer at Sheffield Hallam University, sees the potential to building anything from a basic diploma to postgraduate qualifications in this way.

Sheffield gives recognition to mental health training courses at Rampton special hospital, for example, that count towards a diploma. It offers an add-on year for general nurses who want a degree. And it works with employers like British Telecom, matching company training to degree level.

'We take the view that people are at work and probably not going to get much time off,' says Mr Layer. 'So we look at their previous experience, at work projects which we could adapt to gain academic credit without trying to change the nature of the work, and we look at what modules of our existing courses in the daytime or evening would be relevant.

'There's often a great deal you can recognise. If your in-house training is doing it, there's no reason why you should have to come to Sheffield Hallam University to learn to interpret accounts.'

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