Soft focus skews the perspective

March 10, 2006

Everything today's students do is recast as a 'skill' - even when they keep their mouths shut, says Frank Furedi

Universities appear to be experiencing a big decline in the number of applications for academic courses and a shift to "vocational"

ones. Subjects such as history, philosophy and English are some of the short-term casualties. It would be wrong to read too much into one year's figures. Probably the most interesting aspect of the applications statistics is the reaction of Bill Rammell, Higher Education Minister. He is relaxed about students opting out of humanities and social sciences because his concern is the promotion of the vocational ethos in higher education.

I also am not worried if people opt for vocational courses. We can certainly do with more first-class engineers, doctors and nurses. What concerns me is not the attraction that vocational courses hold for students but the trend to turn academic subjects into vocational ones.

One way of diminishing the intellectual content of academic subjects is by imposition of the so-called skills agenda. Time and again academics are asked: "What are you doing about key skills?" Instead of pointing out that the key skills agenda is little more than a celebration of platitudes promoted through bureaucratic jargon, colleagues repeat an empty phrase they copied from someone else's template.

Most of us think that paying lip service to this agenda is a small price to pay for an easy life. Some colleagues have ready-made replies when asked about the learning outcomes they have achieved. Virtually every seminar or lecture can be represented as a chance to transmit "communication" or "problem-solving skills". If your students don't say a word in your seminar, you've been delivering quality "listening skills". When things go wrong and little is learnt, the group has been "learning to learn".

One reason it is so easy to adjust to the skills agenda is that virtually every classroom experience can be recast as a skill. Your students may not have learnt anything about who was on which side of the English Civil War, but they picked up some tips on personal and interpersonal skills and teamwork. And, of course, they got a good dose of "critical thinking skills".

But whether we like it or not, the rhetorical strategy of signing up to the key skills agenda distracts academics from teaching students in accordance with the integrity of their subject. It is bad enough that lecturers are required to have formal learning outcomes. It is even worse when these need to be specified in terms of the skills they transmit. The breaking down of teaching and learning into skills is defended on the grounds that it encourages reflection. In fact, it is far more likely to distract a lecturer from a subject's intellectual content. Knowledge, insight, perspective or an aesthetic sensibility are not reducible techniques. Once skills are monitored, assessed and accredited, the distancing process between academic content and the process of its transmission becomes greater.

The vocational imperative driving the key skills agenda has the potential to diminish the intellectual experience of academic learning. Perversely, the agenda does little to promote its main objective - the creation of a more skilled workforce. Employers continually complain about the quality of the "soft skills" possessed by recent graduates. This is not surprising.

The formalisation of skills acquisition serves to disconnect different dimensions of the learning experience from one another. It contributes little towards improving vocational education and serves to confuse academic learning.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.

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