A common sense issue

August 6, 1999

Key skills should, more than ever, play a central role in higher

education, say Roger Murphy and Sue Otter Key skills remain contentious in higher education, even after intensive research and development in the field. Some equate the concept with "dumbing down". They ask why they should be expected to help students to acquire basic skills such as numeracy and literacy when once these were taken for granted for higher education entrants. Others quarrel with the premise that transferable/key skills actually exist.

The Centre for Developing and Evaluating Lifelong Learning at the University of Nottingham has recently completed a major project for the Department for Education and Employment relating to the development of key skills in higher education. That project - one of a number on this theme funded by the DFEE - involved forming a national overview of key skills developments in higher education and disseminating lessons to interested parties.

Some institutions have shown how key-skills work can be embedded in the undergraduate experience with little need for extra resources and little disruption to existing provision. Others have made much heavier weather of moving things on and there is obvious resistance from some academics. But our work has convinced us of the need to take this debate seriously and put in place quality standards.

Higher education is much more important than simply a place where students extend their subject-based education to ever higher levels. For most students it is a launching pad, preparing them for the range of tasks, responsibilities and challenges that lie ahead when they graduate.

According to employers, not all undergraduates or graduates are that well equipped for life after graduation. Research by Nottingham University for the DFEE in 1997 showed that only one in five first-year undergraduates in ten British universities had skills equivalent to NVQ level 3 in communication, application of numbers and information technology.

The situation was worse when the other three nationally recognised key skills - working with others, managing self-learning and problem solving - were included. Until now, not enough attention has been paid to trying to raise standards overall.

Nor has enough attention been paid to the opportunities provided in degree courses for students to develop skills or the way in which students develop personal skills outside the curriculum through part-time employment, student union posts, clubs and societies and halls of residence.

The Dearing report and a more recent Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals document on skills in higher education highlighted the importance of key skills; the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is about to include key skills in its new tariff system for university admissions, and the Quality Assurance Agency is building key skills into benchmark standards and the general methodology for assessing teaching quality.

But these skills must now become an integral part of the learning experience. This means that key skills need to be assessed not only as part of the admissions process, but also during and at the end of degree courses.

A national post-16 key skills qualification will be available from 2000. This could one day be followed by a similar set of assessments for students graduating from university, either organised by the national examination boards, which have traditionally had little involvement in higher education assessment, or by other personnel selection agencies and assessment centres. Alternatively, higher education institutions could put in place their own procedures for assessing the key skills of individual students in the form of a transcript or record that amplifies aspects of the final-degree award.

Higher education has not been good at detailing the achievements of students in the past. Degree classifications are a glorious fudge in the way they fail to tell anyone anything specific about an individual. Large graduate employers will continue to invest heavily in their own graduate selection assessment procedures, many of which are targeted specifically at key skills. But now that everyone involved in higher education must demonstrate "outcomes", the issue of key skills cannot be avoided. These skills are not at all to do with dumbing down but with raising standards, expectations and understanding of the value of a good quality higher education experience.

Roger Murphy is director of the Centre for Developing and Evaluating Lifelong Learning in the school of education at the University of Nottingham. Sue Otter is a special lecturer and educational consultant who works part-time for the CDELL.

A report of the CDELL project, Implementing a Dissemination Strategy for Key Skills in Higher Education, will be completed for the DFEE this month. Details about this work and other key skills developments in higher

education can be accessed through www.keyskillsnet.org.uk

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