Dangerous skills perspective

May 9, 1997

THE UNPROVOKED attack by Terry Hyland on the concept of transferable skills (THES, May 2) exemplifies academic isolationism at its worst. Hyland appears to dismiss such skills from having any role within higher education and training, describing "skill-talk" as "fatuous and redundant", and the skills themselves as "entirely illusory". Rather, he urges us to locate skills, particularly "thinking skills", rigidly within the context of their acquisition and not to see them as transferable.

Classics and philosophy graduates used to be deemed fit to run the empire and the civil service. A whole range of graduates pursue careers in administration, commerce, industry, politics, social services and the media. Are we to confess that their (unrelated) degree programmes provided nothing in the way of general training in work-related skills? Does the very act of being at university for three years, studying a subject in depth, and living alongside a mixed student population have no general, transferable value? And what of all those extra-curricular activities that students are encouraged to undertake - are they unlikely to provide useful experience for later careers?

Hyland's perspective is a dangerous one. The average tax-payer would feel ripped off if persuaded by Hyland's views, and if students really believed that their degree courses offered no opportunity to gain transferable skills, there might be a massive flight from higher education. Most graduates ultimately seek (and find) employment beyond the context of their narrow field of undergraduate study.

If skills are transferable, they are transferable in both directions. I note that Hyland works in a department of continuing education. Has he not observed his students bring external, transferable skills to their study?

If academics cannot impart skills that can travel, they may, like Samson, bring their ivory towers crashing down over their heads.

David Weitzman

Higher education consultant


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