Cutting edge

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
John Blundell's masters degree is as up to the minute as his work because that what's it's about . And hairdresser Michael Myciunka is using his business as the basis of his BA. Helen Hague reports

Michael Myciunka runs a hair salon in Bradford called PHD - that's Perfect Hair Day, not doctor of philosophy. As well as cutting and styling hair, he is taking a BA in applied business development, and he is keen to follow it up with a masters degree. John Blundell turned his job at the leading edge of green fuel technology into a masters degree, on a course he designed, attuned to his highly specialised work.

Both men signed up for learndirect's learning through work in mid-career, at the University of Derby. And both are now keen advocates for this route to career development which allows learners to carry on earning while acquiring qualifications crucial to their work. The higher-education take on learndirect involves rigorous academic work and scrutiny. It is far from the "bite-sized" learning available online or for beefing up basic skills.

Michael, the hairdresser, has been running his small business for four years; he employs three stylists including a trainee. "Learning through work offered me a flexible learning programme based around my workplace and my interests," he says. "I have developed work on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and the national minimum wage, and presented it to the local chamber of commerce. I've used the marketing plan developed on the course for my business and would recommend this way of studying to other SME owners. It has helped me with time management and planning. It empowers learners to develop their own unique style and can feed back into the business."

Michael's dissertation on work-based learning in hairdressing proves his point. "SMEs are crucial to the economy. Courses like these give people who run businesses and their staff the flexibility to help the business succeed." When he graduates in January, Michael plans to start a masters on entrepreneurship and leadership - with special reference to smaller businesses.

John Blundell works in Derby for Alstom, a large French-owned company with a good record of helping staff gain new skills. John was the first employee there to turn his job into a masters degree.

Wendy Taylor, head of human resources at the company's Derby site, explains why learning through work appealed. "We take on projects which include reducing greenhouse gas emissions from combustion equipment. The technology and the legislation are constantly changing, so it's vital our engineers are on top of the latest developments. Supporting continuing professional development is key to attracting good staff and keeping the company competitive.

"There's only a small team here, so having a senior engineer like John out of the building for long periods just wouldn't have been possible. With learning through work, John didn't have to take much time out because he had the flexibility to fit his learning around work and base it on work projects. By supporting his studies we've not only got a more motivated and skilled engineer, but the practical output in the form of research analysis that will be used on future projects. "

John gained his MSc in combustion, fuels and performance modelling and his fresh expertise is feeding back into his work. He is full of praise for staff and tutors at the University of Derby who helped him build his own bespoke course.

"Chris Newman from the learning-through-work team at Derby was always at the end of the phone or email; he put me in touch with tutors who could help me."

John took his first degree in maths with the Open University while working, so he knew he was suited to distance learning.

"Working for my MSc has been a long and rewarding process. I've become more confident because I've tackled things I wouldn't have even thought about before. It's widened my horizons both intellectually and professionally."

The University of Derby is one of six higher education institutions working with learndirect to provide learning through work. It has impressive results: in the past five years, more than 400 people have gained higher level qualifications or credits across the country, 340 of them through the University of Derby. And 200 of these have designed their own courses.

David Young, head of learning through work at the university, says Derby has a long history of vocational education, offering apprenticeships back in the 1950s.

"Our approach updates that tradition for today's workforce," he says. "The education system has a tendency to polarise the academic and the vocational, and learning through work is evidence that the two have both synergy and potential, in this case brought together through the internet.

We see that helping people design and follow higher level courses within the workplace is a great complement to the more traditional courses of study"

John Blundell has won promotion since completing his masters, and Michael Myciunka is encouraging his staff to benefit from learndirect. Katrina, his principal stylist, is soon to study foundation modules in marketing through learndirect, in a course specially designed for hairdressers.

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