Students need ‘soft skills’ courses as part of degrees

Former Shanghai Normal University president advocates classes on extracurricular development

November 5, 2016
Pile of soft toy emoji faces
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Universities should teach students “social and emotional” skills on top of their academic studies to prepare them for the demands of 21st-century society, according to the former president of Shanghai Normal University.

Minxuan Zhang, director of the Research Center for International and Comparative Education at Shanghai Normal, made the comments at a forum held at the UCL Institute of Education as part of the Global Cities Education Network initiative - a scheme devised by the Asia Society's Center for Global Education.

Speaking to Times Higher Education after the event on “21st Century Skills in a Global Context”, Professor Zhang said that all students, “no matter what subjects or disciplines they do”, should have these skills.

“In our university, we already pay attention to that,” he said. “So we have zero-credit courses, [consisting of] social activities. So all students [join]…and among the activities they can learn social and emotional skills.

“We internationalised our own campus, which let students not only learn academic knowledge, but let them [learn about] themselves in society. [We] try to give them opportunities to use what they [have] learned [before they go into the real world].”

During the debate, Professor Zhang said that students in China, besides aiming to study abroad at institutions such as Harvard University and the UCL Institute of Education, wanted to learn “something different from other countries”. To help prepare them, he said, Shanghai had introduced “core competencies” covering soft, emotional skills.

“We are getting more and more aware of global skills,” he told the audience. “This is very new [however]. Even five years ago, Shanghai students and educators didn’t talk about this too much.”

Elsewhere, Andreas Schleicher, director of education at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, suggested that to change learning systems to integrate 21st-century skills would require a revision to the current utilitarian view of education.

“We have designed our education systems around the norms of the industrial society,” he told the audience. “It is no longer adequate. How can you reframe that? The future needs to be a lot more integrated: integrated across disciplines, helping people think like a scientist and at the same time think like a historian.

“It is everyone’s responsibility: this artificial dichotomy between knowledge and skills that has been invented by educators, this is not a phenomenon we find in the real world.”

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Print headline: Undergraduates need ‘soft skills’ courses as part of degrees

Reader's comments (1)

Share - Associação para a partilha do Conhecimento (Porto, Pt) made a significant effort in last years to inform, alert, raise awareness, and share perspectives in this subject at Portuguese Higher Education Institutions - please check some activities and results at

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