Are employers still willing to support staff who want to gain more qualifications? James Clegg looks at the impact of the recession on opportunities for part-time study


Increasing concern about a skill gap in UK construction has tended to focus on the more hands-on end of the market by calling for greater emphasis on apprenticeships. But what of the university-qualified, professional side of the industry, incorporating architects, surveyors, engineers and planners?

It is hard to build a clear picture. According to UCAS figures the number of students taking architecture, building and planning courses has dropped from 10,333 in 2008 to 8,956 in 2011 (figures for 2012 are not yet available). The number of engineering students, on the other hand, has fared much better with numbers steadily increasing from 23,519 in 2008 to 26,022 2011, although how many of these engineers are headed for construction-related disciplines is unclear.

An extra factor to consider is that many potential students could be put off by the cost if it looks unlikely to lead to work. Since tuition fees were introduced in 1998 - and, subsequently, increased in 2004 - going to university has become a costly business. In the past, many employers have offered financial support for promising employees to study part-time. But, given the current economic climate, is that still the case?

Investing in the future

The simple answer seems to be - yes, for now at least. This year’s Building Good Employer guide showed that featured firms placed a great deal of emphasis on training, including supporting employees through higher education qualifications.

For instance, project manager Buro Four has supported 19 members of staff on a range of qualifications that are relevant to the needs of the business. This support has included full contribution towards tuition fees, flexible working arrangements to allow staff to attend lectures and up to six days paid study leave a year to attend exams.

HR manager, Laura Goodall explained the company’s policy by saying: “Bruro Four recognises that its greatest asset is its staff and that their development contributes to the achievement of our organisational objectives.”

Another firm that provides this kind of support is consultant Faithorn Farrell Timms, which offers to pay their employee’s course fees and allows day release if they need to attend lectures within working hours. Over 100 staff members have completed higher education qualifications - including building surveying and quantity surveying masters courses and higher national diplomas - in the 11-year history of the company and this trend shows no sign of abating with 14 employees currently on courses.

Senior partner Patrick Ashley thinks it’s a worthwhile investment. He says: “Graduates are often unable to fund their way through these courses. Not only are they expensive, but also they cannot afford the time away from work if the organisation does not help them. We want to avoid having a vacuum of young, newly-qualified people in a couple of years’ time as a result of the recession.”

Balancing act

However, before undertaking a higher education course while in employment you should consider the amount of time and work involved.

Mario Vieira, an associate at architect Scott Brownrigg chose to do an MA in architecture (sustainability and design) because, he says, “I was keen to return to thinking about architecture outside of the daily project pressures. After more than 10 years working in the industry it was important to refresh my knowledge as well as develop new ways of thinking and approaches.”

However, he soon found that “the greatest challenge was balancing work, family and studies.”

“Having a patient family and understanding employer helps but there were still many late nights. I was fortunate that project and university deadlines rarely clashed. But I do believe that time pressures did sometimes mean that my ambitions for the coursework projects had to be pulled back.”

Having a patient family and understanding employer helps but there were still many late nights

Mario Vieia, Scott Brownrigg

Buro Four associate Charmiane Knower, who was supported by the company in a MSc in sustainability, environment and change, says: “I loved [the course] but it was hard. I had to plan my time carefully and give up 90% of my social life to make time to study.

Professor Farzad Khosrowshahi, head of the School of Built Environment and Engineering at Leeds Metropolitan University, says: “In our experience we do notice, at certain times of year, that part-time students struggle to combine work with study. But they have come into the situation knowing that.

“However, we do sympathise with them when it becomes a problem and try to take that into account.”

Darren James, senior admissions tutor at the Department of the Built Environment at London South Bank University, sees working students as having some advantages. He says: “Teaching students who are also working is a help as they bring a different dimension into the classroom and are able to freely draw on their experiences when contributing to any discussions during the lectures.

“Occasionally it can lead to a student having to leave early or not attend due to work commitments, but we are able to accommodate this so it won’t impact on their studies, and it is very much the exception and not the rule.”

How much longer?

Whether support from employers in the industry for employees in higher education can continue remains to be seen. In the past Scott Brownrigg provided 100% financial support and up to 10 days paid study leave to part 3 architecture students. It would also offer up to 50% financial support and up to five days paid study leave for other employees taking technical and non-technical qualifications, including MSCs and MAs. HR director Kim Balchin said that it was important to offer this support to employees so that the firm would “continue to deliver a sustainable business through a talented, motivated and ambitious workforce”.

However, in February this year, Belchin says, the company had to temporarily suspend financial support “as a result of budget constraints due to the economic and industry climate”. It continues to offer employees paid study leave and Belchin says: “We regularly review this decision and will certainly consider readopting this strategy when the financial climate allows us to do so.”

Some companies, at least, are still able to offer sponsorship. Buro Four chairman Ian Roberts says: “Continuing to provide this support during a difficult economic climate sends an important message to our staff that personal development remains high on our business agenda.” Ashley, of Faithorn Farrell Timms, says: “We need to ensure a steady flow of young people, coming through, recession or not.”

The question is - how much longer will this be a realistic option if the sector does not pick up? Perhaps now is the time to consider taking a higher education course - paid for by your employer - before the opportunity vanishes.


Be pro-active Approach your line manager about funding if you know it’s something the company offers. Have a clear argument about why you want to do the course and why it would be in the company’s interest to pay for it.

Be organised Work out which course you want to do and where you want to do it. Your employer will rarely dictate where you study, as long as you ensure it is conveniently placed to fit around your work schedule.

Be prepared Work out how much time you will have to take off work in order to carry out the course and if any major deadline clashes are involved. Also, review how many study days will be needed (for exams, for instance) and work out if this fits with your company’s policy in terms of taking paid time off.

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