More workers need university educations if the country is to succeed economically, teachers at Coventry University have said.

And the people behind a new course at the university say giving on-the-job degrees to people while they are at work is the best way for bosses to educate their employees.

The Employer Engagement Project, which will be run by Coventry University, wants to encourage SMEs to work closer with universities when developing staff skills.

It designs training programmes for employees to study at work, with a focus on qualifications for middle managers and senior supervisors.

Ex-road traffic policeman Andy Birch has just finished a year as a personal learning and development consultant for nearly 30 workers at the Automobile Association near Birmingham.

The pilot scheme saw Mr Birch spending the year working alongside the AA workers, sitting in on meetings, observing managers at work and providing a mixture of teaching and coaching.

He said: "It was Coventry University’s answer to how to engage with employers. Rather than a student coming in and doing a management course what we are doing is going out to them and I work with the students at their place of work, using their own jobs as the curriculum.

"A lot of these people are already very competent managers in their own right, they can do the job, they have been there a long time, but they’ve just never engaged with a university or higher education, and maybe wouldn’t have even thought of doing it. It’s quite a new way of working with a university.

"From an organisation's point of view you are building on your capital by saying 'look, I’ve got a workforce that’s more qualified'.

"For the students themselves you are seeing a lot more confidence, because they can point to their skills and say they have got a qualification. And also from the point of view of UK plc we are upskilling the country.

"Britain is becoming a knowledge society and we are part of the process."

In their year, the AA workers earned the equivalent of half a year of full-time credits on a university degree.

Mr Birch said: "One of the major obstacles to development for managers has always been the inevitable time out of the office for programmes which may – or may not – have some benefit for their job and the business.

"Key people can’t afford to go missing, and for many that can either stall or rule out serious development, or lead to the need for career breaks and changes.

"For some employers, the offering from universities has just been too inflexible, as well as being too generic. The programme offers a way forward."

The programme was funded by the Government as a way of exploring ways to get more employees to study for degrees.

And organisers say it could be the perfect way for businesses to get skilled workers without having to lose out on work time. It was set up as a response to a Government report saying the UK needed to increase its number of high-level workers by 29 per cent by 2020.

At its launch, Dr Darryl Bibby, then Dean of the School of Lifelong Learning at Coventry University, said: "A radical change in the way young people and adults are trained is needed to plug the skills gap.

"The take-up of work-based learning opportunities at higher education level is key to Britain’s ability to help create sustainable employability.

"Coventry University has been trusted with the task of designing a new breed of flexible HE vocational qualifications as it is recognised as leading in this area. The qualification combines HE with professional development to help develop business skills. The programme combines learning and practical skills to take people forward and develop talent in ways that other qualifications don’t."