Students' skills for life put in five boxes

Skills Development in Higher Education and Employment
December 8, 2000

How are we to understand the nature of the skills students develop? How transferable are those skills, both across academe and to the world of work? Characteristically, what are the skills that the world of work is looking for from graduate employees? These are the kinds of questions addressed by Skills Development in Higher Education and Employment . This is a large amount of ground to cover and, indeed, we have here four books in one. It offers a conceptual framework for understanding skills in higher education; it presents the views of different groups - teachers, students and employers - on the topic; it gives an insight into students' and graduates' early experience of work; and it provides resources for curriculum designers.

The book begins by offering a conceptual framework that consists of a grid of four interrelated but separate boxes: disciplinary content, disciplinary skills, workplace awareness, workplace experience; on top of this grid is superimposed a fifth box, that of generic skills. For Neville Bennett et al , "core skills" reside in the disciplinary skills box, while "generic skills" are synonymous with transferable skills. The logic of this framework, as I understand it, is that generic or transferable skills are potentially to be found across all disciplines and all domains of work.

This theory is bold and provocative, particularly given that Bennett et al point to the presence of theories of "situated learning", those theories that remind us that "much of what is learned is specific to the situation in which it is learned". At once, therefore, any theory that places transferability at its centre has a lot of explaining to do. How can "generic" or "transferability" (here, the same thing) be so important when it is also acknowledged that much learning is situation-specific?

The question can be asked of the world of work and of higher education itself. The authors say that "generic skills were visible in all degree courses", but I am not convinced their evidence demonstrates this. What it does show is some degree of preparedness of academics to redescribe and even restructure their curriculum practices under the terminology of generic skills; it does not show that the same skills are being commonly developed. "Problem-solving" might appear in curriculum descriptions in both chemistry and midwifery, but we should have no confidence that there is any form of student development taking place that offers an immediate transferability across the two fields.

Within the world of work, too, the authors themselves cast tacit doubt on the existence of generic skills. For example, graduate employees may be made aware of the workplace culture: "Look, in this company you do things this way." We are certainly told that "the range of generic skills being developed in the large majority (of companies surveyed) was remarkably similar" but all the data shows is that employers use a common battery of terms, such as "communication" and "teamwork", not that they have similar interpretations of those terms. Indeed, the authors themselves acknowledge that terms such as "communication" and "teamwork" "are weak and need to be contextualised". The authors' five-dimensional model raises a separate issue as to the relationship between those skills that are characteristically developed in higher education and those that might characteristically be found in the world of work. Clearly, there is bound to be considerable overlap, not least because many courses are directly oriented towards the world of work. But the question remains as to whether there are also skills that separately mark out the two domains. I am not sure that the authors sufficiently acknowledge this possibility. Indeed, their conceptual framework (captured in their five-box diagram) does not allow for the possibility.

This book is extremely valuable for anyone interested in the development of higher education. It addresses key issues in the debate on key skills and is worthwhile on that account. However, I think there remain loose ends, for example between the contextualist position and the generic position: my view is that the genericists are let off the hook too easily. The book attempts to square the circle by suggesting that situation-specific learning itself contains at least the potential of transferable elements. This is a large claim and one, I think, that deserved a little more substantive attention.

The main value of the book, however, lies in the fact that it addresses a crucial and yet an almost silent issue in the wider public debate, that of the shape, purpose and character of the curriculum. The book offers, in a table that could have been more utilised, a four-fold classification of potential curriculum aims, around information, task, self and others. It also demonstrates that the design of the curriculum is to a large extent open and that all kinds of possibilities are in front of academics and others in approaching the task.

Ronald Barnett is professor of higher education, Institute of Education, University of London.

Skills Development in Higher Education and Employment

Author - Neville Bennett, Elisabeth Dunne and Clive Carre
ISBN - 0335 20336 1 and 20335 3 3
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £65.00 and £22.50
Pages - 210

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