Competence fatigue

October 11, 1996

Competence, like motherhood, is hard to be against. Of course people should be competent to carry out the job they hold. A cook must be able to cook, a professor of Greek to read Greek. So far so good. At a relatively simple level all jobs should be capable of specification, as those who draft job advertisements know. Equally it is usually rather clear when people are incompetent.

But there is nothing simple about the efforts now being made to erect frameworks for competencies-based staff assessment and job classification in higher education (page 3). This is being attempted by two organisations working separately on different aspects of the same idea. Both are however linked to the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. One, the Universities and Colleges Staff Development Agency, is an agency of the CVCP and the Standing Conference of Principals. The other is a commercial company set up by universities with at least the initial involvement of another CVCP agency, the Universities Employers Association. Even if the competencies-based approach is a good idea for higher education two separate exercises must be wasteful.

But does competencies-based assessment make sense for higher education anyway? It may be feasible to specify the competencies required for a plumber or a gardener, though even that must be doubtful beyond basic skills since the abilities which make for a good plumber or gardener are difficult to pin down. It is yet more difficult for academics, since their work is of the mind not the hand and is likely to carry them into areas of change and innovation which cannot be predicted. The incomprehensible management babble in which the exercises are couched suggest people do not know what they are doing.

Two factors are contributing to this mess. One is that government does not trust higher education and is endlessly badgering for more assessment and accountability. Everyone and everything, it seems, is to be measured, assessed and held to account except its own members and supporters.

People in higher education then run around trying to erect defensive structures which can be pointed out as evidence that they have it all under control. This falling into line involves adopting the methodology associated with the Government's vocational qualifications: competence-based assessment.

The other factor is government insistence on two qualifications tracks, vocational and academic, supposedly designed for different kinds of mind and based on different assessment methodologies: an insistence apparently reinforced this week by higher education minister Lord Henley (page 44). The competence-based approach for vocational qualifications has worked up to a point with lower-level qualifications but it gets less satisfactory the higher the level. Matthew Huntbach (page 13) describes the problems arising in computer science courses when entrants have vocational qualifications at level three.

It gets worse at levels four and five, as illustrated by the difficulties the librarians are having in defining "competencies" which are largely abstract (Multimedia, page viii).

Now competence-based assessment may be applied to the academic profession. It has evidently been forgotten that the university structure of undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD degrees, is the purpose-designed vocational training structure for the academic profession. The trouble is not that it does not prepare academics well. It does. The trouble is rather that so effective has it been in training people for creative intellectual endeavour that other professions and occupations have found it useful as a preparation for entry to their own professions, but want it modified for their purposes.

It now appears from research carried out by the London School of Economics and the Institute of Education that the competence-based vocational model is deeply flawed anyway. So serious is the criticism that overhaul of vocational qualifications will have to be undertaken rapidly if they are not to become discredited even at the lower levels where they are badly needed.

Given this situation it would be wise for all concerned to halt attempts to introduce competence-based assessment methodologies at higher levels both for the academic profession and for others while the lower levels are sorted out. The present activities are a waste of time.

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