Industry-funded degrees – a novel idea?

17 Apr

Fast food chain KFC made the news this week for its committment to match-funding a BA in Management for 60 of its employees. Employer-funded training is not a new phenomenon: many organisations, particularly in the business and engineering sectors where the specialist skills contribute to business objectives, support their employee’s development to Foundation Degree level.

KFC have committed to matching the employee’s costs for tuition and accommodation: purportedly costing them around £9,000 a year per student. What are the implications of this for KFC’s management students and for Higher Education as a whole? The rest of this post summarises some of my ideas on the subject.

The degree is currently being offered by just one university. This is not unusual for employer-funded training: in apprenticeships and Higher Education employers tend to form partnerships with one or a few institutions who are happy to integrate into the general content of the course the specific training the company wants its employees to receive. While this potentially has implications for the usefulness of the qualification to employees in the wider labour market, the regulation of academic qualifications in the UK and Europe  exists to prevent the content becoming too specific to a single employer.

One clear implication of the university-employer partnership is students’ loss of choice of institution: KFC’s management students will all study with the same university if they wish to make use of the match-funding. This is significant given the emphasis on choice in today’s education ‘market’. However it may also widen participation in Higher Education, engaging employees who might not have considered university due to lack of access to the necessary funding or the required grades for entry. This programme circumvents the rise in fees that has been the topic of much recent discussion, and the organisation’s link with the university delivering the course may well reduce the entry requirements for the students it refers. So, although this potentially undermines the idea of choice and competition that has dominated the sector, its impact on widening participation might be one to be welcomed.

It is difficult to draw conclusions on this specific example without further detail about how precisely it will work. But hwever else it is viewed, this move is representative of a wider, gradual integration of Higher Education and industry, along with increasing pressure for universities to focus on action research which has a direct impact on local or national industrial, economic or social objectives. As already mentioned, employer involvement in and funding of education is not new or ‘novel’: Foundation degrees, vocational training and even Masters Degrees have long received elements of employer funding. Certainly it will frustrate those with a ‘traditional’ view on Higher Education, who continue to emphasise the value of enquiry for its own sake and for its capacity to prompt innovation and truly new ideas – perhaps this is likely to be the biggest loss of our increasingly instrumental education system.

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