Employability courses attract cash

March 6, 1998

LARGE chunks of money accompany the more than 100 key skills projects that run across higher education. Many are concentrated in the new universities but some research-led institutions are also getting in on the act.

Nottingham University, for instance, has just won more than Pounds 500,000 from the Department for Education and Employment, which is spending Pounds 8 million on teaching and learning projects related to careers.

Roger Murphy, a professor in Nottingham's school of education, said the university had made a commitment that students would acquire high-level transferable skills relevant to future employment.

"Pressure is being put on universities to involve themselves in key skills and we support that here, even if it does mean dictating areas of the curriculum nationally," he said. "The move is being driven by the needs of employers."

Small and medium-sized enterprises are expected to employ more graduates than large corporations by the end of the century and it is therefore inevitable that the days of the graduate training scheme will be numbered.

"Universities have got to act," agreed Alan Howe, director of teaching enhancement at Nottingham. Encouraging non-specific work skills will be the key to success.

But even when lecturers have been convinced of the benefits of teaching key skills there are still some large issues to be resolved, said Dr Howe. Should there be a single definition of key skills in higher education? Who should teach them? Should they be compulsorily assessed at the end of the degree programme? Should universities expect the same level of achievement in, say, numeracy, across all degree programmes, even on courses without any mathematical content?

Professor Murphy conducted a national survey last year that found that just 18 per cent of new undergraduates were competent in communication, numeracy and information technology. He has produced a weighty staff development pack that, he says, will assist any university in responding to the Dearing report.

This recommended that all institutions should immediately begin to develop learning outcomes for degree programmes specifying four key skills; communication, numeracy, use of information technology and learning how to learn.

But how do universities judge how much attention individual students require in each area? A partnership between Sheffield Hallam and Leeds Metropolitan universities has just received Pounds 210,000 from the Higher Education Funding Council's teaching and learning technology programme to address this. The team is developing a web-based system to assess individual skills requirements. The system will then point staff in the direction of relevant learning materials.

The University of Northumbria has taken the unusual step of devising its own set of key skills relevant to degree work plus a target level that all students should reach on leaving the university.

Accreditation adviser Garth Rhodes said the university was mapping all areas of the curriculum to identify where key skills are being taught implicitly and where they still need to be introduced. In three years' time it is expected that all degree programmes at Northumbria will be able to include key skills.

Mr Rhodes believes key skills ought to be at least as important as specialist subject knowledge. He said that there was a significant school of thought stating that key skills should be the main emphasis of academic programmes. Specialist knowledge would then be relegated to second place.

There was also much debate about whether key skills ought to be assessed separately from subject knowledge, and about who should assess them. "It is a minefield really," Mr Rhodes said.

COMMON DEFINITIONS OF KEY SKILLS

* personal skills such as ability to improve own learning and action planning

* interpersonal skills such as working with others

* communication

* literacy

* information technology skills

* problem-solving including critical and lateral thinking, reflection and objective reasoning

* positive attitude to change including understanding the worlds of work, politics and society

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