Comparing Professional and Academic Qualifications as a Route to Institutional Curriculum Change

Chris Garbett, Leeds Beckett University, UK


Drivers for institutional curriculum change

There are several distinct trends apparent in the worldwide provision of higher education (HE).One significant trend is the rise in the number of students. The world student population is predicted to more than double to 262 million by the year 2025 (Goddard, 2012).

Mass delivery of HE rogrammes has also entailed rising costs. When HE participation was restricted to an elite, governments could afford to subsidise costs. With increased participation, however, the previous funding model no longer suffices.

“The question of how to pay for education, and in particular how to pay for higher education, is everywhere one of the key issues of the twenty-first century.” (Piketty, 2014) Effectively, HE has moved from an exclusive supply-driven model, where students competed for university places, to a more inclusive demand-driven model, where universities now compete for students.

Technological developments have also impacted on HE delivery, especially online delivery and learning. This can be formal web-based distance learning courses or massive open online courses (MOOC).

A further factor affecting the delivery of HE programmes is the increased need to relate academic content to the employability of graduates. Employers express concerns about the employability skills of graduates. “Businesses want to see higher education institutions doing more to improve the business relevance of undergraduate courses (49%) and to help students become job-ready (47%)” (CBI/Pearsons, 2014). UK politicians have also expressed concern about the future shape of HE Qualifications.

This paper looks at existing Professional Qualifications to consider if there is parity between Academic and Professional Qualifications in terms of educational attainment. If there is such parity, could Professional Qualifications be adapted into Academic Qualifications and, if so, what are the financial and other implications of such adaptation?


The paper uses a case study approach to compare the delivery of competency-based Professional Qualification with an equivalent academic award.

A case study is used utilising actual data drawn from the structures of both the Professional and the Academic Qualifications constituting “an empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context” (Yin, 2009).

The comparative analysis is undertaken by quantitative and qualitative comparison of a Level 6 Professional Qualification, the Level 6 Diploma of the British Institute of Facilities Management (BIFM); and an equivalent Academic Qualification, the BSc in Facilities Management.

Quantitative analysis

The quantitative analysis is undertaken by considering the stated learning outcomes (LO) and assessment criteria (AC) of the two qualifications.

Qualitative analysis

The quantitative analysis is supplemented by a qualitative analysis through a word cloud, using Wordle analysis of relevant descriptors in the two programmes. The use of Wordle as a supplementary research tool is a relatively new tool which can be used in conjunction with other methods. “Word clouds can be a useful tool for preliminary analysis and for validation of previous findings. However, Wordle is an adjunct tool and we do not recommend that this method be used as a stand-alone research tool comparable to traditional content analysis methods” (McNaught& Lam, 2010). In view of the above caveat, the word cloud representation is supplementary to the quantitative analysis undertaken.

The qualifications

The author’s home University offers a range of professional, vocational and academic courses in Facilities Management (FM). All courses are web-based distance learning courses.

For the professional qualifications of the BIFM, students select from a menu of units to build up to the award, certificate or diploma in FM at either level 4, 5 or 6.

The University also offers the following academic courses: a top-up BSc FM at level 6 and an MSc FM at level 7.

Professional Qualifications British Institute of Facilities Management (BIFM)

BIFM have developed their own Professional Qualifications at levels 4, 5, 6, and 7. With guidance from tutors, learners self-select which level is appropriate for them.

The BIFM qualifications are accredited by the Qualification Credit Framework (QCF). The QCF equates directly to Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) Framework for Higher Education Qualifications (FHEQ).

At each level of the BIFM qualifications, there are three grades of qualification: the award, the certificate and the diploma. At levels 4 and 5, the award is 12 credits, the certificate is 24 credits and the diploma is 48 credits. At level 6, the award is 10 credits, the certificate is 30 credits and the diploma is 60 credits.

Qualifications are made up from a menu of mandatory and optional units.

Learners initially enroll for two years. There are no fixed entry or exit dates, and learners can work at their own pace and have flexibility in selecting optional units.

The Academic Qualifications

The University also offers the following Academic Qualifications:

MSc Facilities Management 180 credit points at level 7.

A ‘top-up’ BSc (Hons) Facilities Management 120 credit points at level 6. Entrants to this degree already have relevant level 5 qualifications, professional qualifications or relevant experience. Figure 1 shows the diagrammatic structure of the BSc (Hons) Facilities Management.

Figure 1 BSc (Hons) FM course structure

The BSc FM comprises 6 x 20 credit modules. Three modules, i.e. 60 credits, equates to an ordinary, non-honours degree.

In terms of credit, therefore, there is a direct comparison between the BIFM professional diploma (60 credit points level 6) and the BSc Facilities Management, also 60 credit points level 6.

This paper will now use different metrics to further compare the two qualifications.

Quantitative analysis and comparison of the professional and academic qualifications

This quantitative analysis is undertaken by:

Comparing units and modules

LOs for the BSc FM

The BSc FM comprises 3 x 20 credit modules. University policy dictates that modules should have no more than four LOs per module. Three modules, therefore, equates to no more than 12 LOs.

LOs for the BIFM Level 6 Diploma

The minimum requirement to achieve the level 6 BIFM Diploma is nine units comprising five mandatory units and four optional units. The units vary between ten credits per unit to four credits per unit.

LOs for the BIFM units are specified in the unit specification. These LOs are then sub-divided into assessment criteria (AC). The structure of the BIFM units is shown in Figure 2. This figure shows the unit specification for a typical BIFM level 6 unit, unit 6.01 bearing 10 credits. The unit is divided into five LOs. Each LO is sub-divided into a number of ACs.

Unit FM6.01 Strategic facilities management

(At level 6, the evidence provided by learners to confirm that they meet the AC must relate to organisations where they have worked or where they are working. Where appropriate, the evidence should show that the learners have been able to take into account relevant theories and methods addressed by the BIFM qualifications at levels 5 and 4.)

Aim of unit:

This unit enables learners to understand the influences and drivers of facilities management, how to market and promote facilities management both within and outside own organisation, the importance of innovation in facilities management and how to apply development in facilities management within an organisation.

Figure 2 BIFM Unit specification (BIFM, n.d.)

Quantitative comparison of LOs and ACs

University modules are limited to two points of assessment per module. Three modules, therefore, is six points of assessment. The minimum mark to achieve a pass in a university module is 40%.

The nine BIFM units require at least nine points of assessment (some units require two points of assessment). Word length per assessment is based on the amount of credits.

The BIFM assessments are not graded, but to pass the assessment, 100% of LO and AC have to be satisfied. The following figure is an extract from the ‘Evidence Seen’ sheet for a BIFM Unit. All LO and AC have to be satisfied.

Figure 3 Extract from BIFM Evidence Seen sheet (truncated for reasons of space) (BIFM, n.d.)

Having identified the requirements for LO, AC and assignments for both the Academic and the Professional Qualifications, for ease of comparison, these can now be shown in a table.

The chart in Figure 4 summarises the quantitative comparison between the BSc FM and the BIFM Level 6 Diploma.

Figure 4 Summary of quantitative analysis

From the quantitative analysis, it is evident that the BIFM Level 6 Diploma has more rigorous requirements than the equivalent BSc FM in terms of numbers of LO and AC to be satisfied, and in terms of the overall assessment requirements.

Having considered the quantitative analysis, a qualitative analysis of the two qualifications is undertaken.

Qualitative analysis and comparison of the professional and academic qualifications

Textual analysis

The LOs from the BSc FM Module Templates (MATS) and the LOs from BIFM ‘Declaration of Evidence Seen Sheets’ were analysed using an online text analyser.

For convenience, both sets of LOs were adapted. Commonly appearing words such as student, facilities, management, services, aims were removed from each set. The results of the analysis are shown below:


Figure 5 Result of textual analysis BSc FM

Figure 6 Result of textual analysis of BIFM Level 6 Diploma

Textual analysis results

Interestingly, high-level analytic verbs such as evaluate, review, develop and analyse were predominant in the BIFM qualification specifications. The BSc analysis showed a predominance of nouns such as professional, learning and requirements.

This frequency and rank of terms is interesting. The actual numeric count of occurrence of words, of course, is to be discounted simply because of the higher overall word count from the BIFM document.

The final analysis again is a comparison of the textual content of the LOs documents, this time shown as a visual comparison.

Figure 7 Wordle analysis of BSc FM

Figure 8 Wordle analysis of BIFM Level 6 Diploma

The preponderance of the verbs analyse and evaluate corresponds to the higher level of the cognitive process according to Bloom’s Taxonomy, as revised by Anderson and Krathwohl (Anderson & Krathwohl, 2001).

Conclusions from analysis

The aim of this paper was to “look(s) at existing Professional Qualifications to consider if there is parity between Academic and Professional Qualifications in terms of educational attainment”.

From the quantitative analysis, the BIFM Level 6 Diploma has more exacting criteria, in terms of assessment, than the BSc FM. BIFM learners have to submit a total of 60,000 words, spread over 10 assessments to satisfy 100% of 43 LOs. By contrast, students on the BSc Facilities Management have to submit a total of 9,500 words, plus a spreadsheet, spread over seven assessments and, in addition, sit an exam in order to satisfy not less than 40% of 16 LOs. Assuming than, ceteris paribus, the levels are equivalent, the BIFM Professional Qualification has more rigorous requirements than the BSc Facilities Management.

Whilst acknowledging the limitations of qualitative analysis rather than quantitative analysis, the textual analysis indicates that the BIFM Diploma expects higher level skills in terms of Bloom’s Taxonomy than does the BSc FM. This confirms, or supersedes, the expectation of the Qualifications Framework.

In several respects, the Professional Qualifications are superior to the Academic Qualifications.


Quality implications

The preceding analyses show that properly accredited Professional Qualifications can have the same (or greater) rigour and depth as equivalent Academic Qualifications. This opens up the possibility of HEIs accrediting Professional Qualifications. A learner who completes the BIFM Level 6 Diploma, delivered by the HEI, has achieved learning at least equivalent, if not superior to, the top-up BSc. In that case there would be a convincing argument for the learner to be awarded an unclassified BSc or proceed to the BSc (Hons) with advanced standing. The principle of awarding academic credit for non-academic qualifications is already established in Europe in accordance with the Bologna and Eurydice Processes (Network, 2012).

European practice

European countries are already, to a greater or lesser extent, allowing credits from other programmes against academic programmes.

This opens up the possibility of greater collaboration between HE and industry.The students will be learning whilst in the workplace.

This further opens the possibility of a curricula innovation for a new format of degree, utilising Professional Qualifications as a route for a ‘technical degree’.

Cost implications

Institutional cost savings

As previously stated, for the case study, both the Academic and Professional Qualifications are delivered by web-based distance learning. Detailed cost analyses of web-based distance learning programmes (Garbett, 2011; Bartolci-Zlomislic & Bates, 1999; Laurillard, 2007) identify significant cost savings in delivering off-campus courses compared to face-to-face delivery. These savings particularly arise from the reduction in, or elimination of, fixed costs such as accommodation costs, and in the reduced amount of hours spent in delivering face-to-face lectures. An off-campus technical degree, utilising existing professional body competencies, could be delivered for a fraction of the cost of a traditional face-to-face degree. As shown above, such a competency-based technical degree would have at least the same rigour as an equivalent academic degree.

Individual student cost savings

The student clearly benefits. The student is earning whilst learning. At no, or negligible, additional cost they gain the additional prestige of academic recognition and an academic award, for their professional qualification. With multiple entry and exit points and open submission arrangements, the student has complete flexibility in arranging their learning to suit their own situations. Despite the initial two-year registration period, students may re-enrol at any time and pick up their learning at a later date. The web-based delivery pattern also means that students can study anywhere in the world. If a student is redeployed to another city, or another country, they can still continue with their studies.

Implications for BIFM

BIFM qualifications are already of high prestige within the profession. Recognising the academic merit of these qualifications would further increase that prestige

Implications for the University

For the University, this merger of Professional and Academic Qualifications increases the range of programmes which can be offered. The flexible timescales and distance learning mode of delivery open a worldwide market opportunity. There is some evidence that this pattern of competency-based delivery is already being implemented.

A small but growing number of educational institutions… are implementing online competency-based programs. Although many are still in nascent stages today, it is becoming clear that online competencies have the potential to create high-quality learning pathways that are affordable, scalable, and tailored to a wide variety of industries. It is likely they will only gain traction and proliferate over time. (Weisse, 2014)

Wider implications

This study has been exclusively concerned with one professional body. There is no need to conclude, however, that the result would be different for any other accredited Professional Qualifications.

Implications for institutional curriculum change

The drivers for change to HEI curricula were identified above, particularly:

For vocational courses, there are opportunites to utilise Professional Qualifications in a number of ways.

Material from the Professional Qualifications can be used to supplement, or replace, material from the academic programmes. Whilst this would be particulalrly appropriate for part-time students who are employed in the professional area, it would also be useful for full-time students to enable those students to see the direct relevance of their learning to professional practice.

Within programmes,curricula change could also be effected by replacing taught modules with units from the Professional Qualification. Accepting that the units have the same credit as the academic awards, some taught modules could be completely replaced with an appropriate number of credits from the Professional Qualification. If these units are delivered by distance learning (DL), this would give a new emphasis to the concept of ‘Blended Learning’. The students take a mix of taught and face-to-face modules and DL units. This would achieve cost saving at the Institution because of the reduced need for expensive teaching space. It would also encourage the students to accept more autonomy for their own learning. Instead of being passive recipients of taught material, they would have to self-direct their learning. This drive towards greater independence of learning has the added advantage of progressing the student along the Pedagogy-Andragogy-Heutagogy continuum.

Institutional change of curricula may be further strengthened by redesigning the whole programme. Traditional 3-year or 4-year sandwichcourses could be redesigned so that students spend a greater part of their time out of the classroom and in practice.

It is anticipated that there could be some resistance to these changes. Resistance could come from academic staff who may fear a dilution of ‘academic’ content. Students may resist the replacement of taught material with DL material, especially if it is seen as merely a cost-cutting measure. Any cost savings would have to be distributed between the student and the institution and the benefits made clear to the student.