Take Cardinal Newman approach, lecturers told

September 10, 2004

Academics must work together more closely in the design of degree programmes to ensure that teaching methods help students develop the personal attributes employers are looking for, the head of a major government-backed project said this week.

Over the past two years, a team of academics, employers and students has been considering how changes to undergraduate courses, teaching and assessment could enhance "student employability".

Peter Knight of the Open University, who is director of the project, said many employers were looking for students with confidence, initiative and an ability to reflect on what they are doing - as much as for those with technical skills or academic knowledge.

Instead of "working in isolation", academics needed to consider how their teaching complemented the approach of their colleagues and helped develop those attributes throughout an undergraduate course, he said.

Professor Knight stressed that he was not advocating "crass vocationalism" and said that the attributes valued by employers were also valued by academics.

"The undergraduate curriculum should be considered in the old Cardinal Newman fashion as being an extended education, not just an induction into thermodynamics," he said.

Even variety in the length of essays students were asked to write helped develop critical thinking attributes, he said, with many students finding it more challenging to write short pieces of 500 words than 5,000 or 10,000-word essays.

The project, set up in 2002 by the Department for Education and Skills and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, will discuss its findings at a conference in February when, Professor Knight said, the "baton will be passed" to the Higher Education Academy.

He said: "There is pretty consistent research that shows that what employers are looking for is less of competence and more of confidence.

"If you strip out law and medicine, most employers are fairly happy to take any graduate and train them because what they want is people who are confident, who can communicate and reflect on what they are doing and consider how to do things better.

"These are things that can't be covered by the straightforward word 'skills' -the things that employers value are qualities and dispositions.

"We know fairly well how to help people master skills, but how you help people make progress in these other areas is much more complicated."

Professor Knight said that academics needed to collaborate and "map" how personal attributes would be developed during each element of a degree programme.

"Most academics design their course in isolation and don't see it as part of a programme," he said.

"Academics don't tend to think, 'hang on, we are looking at student communication, how can I build on what they have already done and make sure it carries forward into what they are going to do?'

"It does have implications for academic freedom - not in terms of content but in terms of the ways of teaching, the tasks that are set and the expectations you have about students."

The project team has also considered links between "employability, good learning in higher education and citizenship" and concluded that there are parallels between each element.

"There's also been quite a lot of modern American work about citizenship, and you end up talking about the same qualities that we talk of - about employability and what academics say they want their degrees to promote," Professor Knight said.

paul.hill@thes.co.uk

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