UK Engagement Survey: universities have limited impact on students’ ‘soft’ skill development

Responses of more than 24,000 undergraduates indicate limited development in areas such as creativity and citizenship over course of degree

December 10, 2015
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Advancing: students at pre- and post-92s reported similar levels of hard skill growth. Newer institutions did better on soft skill growth

Undergraduates report little significant improvement in “soft” skills such as creativity and citizenship over the course of their university careers, according to a major survey that could form part of the teaching excellence framework.

The Higher Education Academy’s UK Engagement Survey, based on North America’s National Survey of Student Engagement, draws on the responses of more than 24,000 undergraduates and is the first nationwide attempt to measure “learning gain” in British universities.

The first formal results, released exclusively to Times Higher Education, reveal that students perceived strong development of “hard” skills, which are traditionally regarded as a hallmark of university study.

Half of all respondents reported very high levels of development in becoming an independent learner, with another 36 per cent saying that they experienced a reasonable amount of development. Eighty-three per cent reported a very high or reasonable amount of development in critical and analytical thinking skills.

In contrast, only about a quarter of undergraduates perceived a very high level of benefit to softer skills such as citizenship, innovation and developing personal values.

The responses were similar for employability skills and the ability to analyse numerical and statistical information, another key demand of businesses. More than one in five respondents reported very little development in the latter, although there were significant differences by subject studied.

In general, students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics-based subjects reported significantly higher gains in hard skills than in soft skills, while undergraduates following arts and humanities courses perceived significantly lower levels of hard skill development than their counterparts in other subject areas.

Significantly, although the responses of students in different years indicated progressive development of hard skills over the course of a three-year degree, no such pattern was evident in soft skills: the responses of third-year students were almost identical to those of first years in most subject areas.

Sue Rigby, deputy vice-chancellor for student development at the University of Lincoln, who chairs the HEA’s surveys steering group and the work on learning gain being coordinated by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said that the UKES demonstrated that development of soft skills needed to be integrated into curricula more explicitly.

How much has overall student experience contributed in following areas?

How much has overall student experience contributed in following areas?

“All universities will want their students to leave with all the soft skills that kit them out for the next thing in life so the survey is really useful, showing that, particularly in STEM subjects, students are not rating themselves highly in terms of developing soft skills,” Professor Rigby said. “It gives universities another way of looking at what they are doing and an opportunity to rebalance some of the things they are talking to students about: it is worth spending time on this stuff.”

Further questions identified the pedagogical approaches that were felt to be most beneficial for skill development, including, for hard skills, engagement with research; and for soft skills, reflective and integrative learning.

Twenty-four institutions participated in the UKES this year, and THE understands that ministers are interested in looking at the results for later stages of the TEF, which will introduce differentiated fee caps for English universities based on their performance.

US research indicates that engagement is a better proxy for learning gain than satisfaction, another proposed TEF metric.

“You could be happy and not learn much,” Professor Rigby said. “You could be engaged and not learn much, but it’s less likely.”

If the survey does form part of the TEF, one set of findings that could prove particularly powerful are those around the perceptions of learning gain expressed by students from different types of universities.

Undergraduates reported similar levels of hard skill development whether they attended a pre-92 institution or a post-92. Moreover, students at newer universities reported “markedly higher” levels of soft skill growth than their counterparts at older institutions, which are traditionally regarded as being more prestigious.

But Camille Kandiko Howson, a senior lecturer in higher education at King’s College London who worked on the UKES, said that the difference in responses by discipline meant that this was where the survey was most valuable.

“For things like the TEF to be useful, this information would need to be reported and analysed at subject level,” she said. “You could get an institutional average from that but, if you were comparing institutions, you would basically be comparing groups of students they have in different disciplines.”

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Print headline: Degrees failing to boost students’ ‘soft skills’

Reader's comments (4)

Development of hard skills are overt and obvious to students, however, by doing a degree, "soft skills" are naturally developed. The issue is that little emphasis is placed on these types of skills, which leaves learners unaware that they are both important and being developed. Universities need to embed a culture of employability within their curriculum to ensure learners realise these skills are being developed. This will help students in any future career, where these types of skills are probably more likely to influence success than hard skills.
Sue Rigby’s assertion that the UK engagement survey demonstrates that the development of soft skills needs to be integrated into curricula more explicitly is timely as reference is made to more than 24,000 undergraduate responses indicating limited development in areas such as creativity. Enterprise educators have a clear role to play here and a great opportunity and increasingly so with the impetus of the TEF, and the QAA benchmarks which refer to Enterprise as “the application of creative ideas and innovations to practical situations. “ According to the survey, a number of undergraduates don’t perceive the benefits of these ‘softer skills’. This may, in part, be because enterprise education provision is not as joined up and packaged as well as it could be to students and therefore not seen as an important thread throughout their programme of study. For instance, some providers offer degree programmes in enterprise, while others offer modules, and for other providers it exists as part of careers education and employment or it’s through participation in extra-curricular schemes, such as 'start-up' schemes or student societies. Whilst some really innovative work is taking place and to be celebrated amongst the enterprise education community, it is time to shout about what we do and the clear benefits and ‘learning gain’ to our students. Karen Bill Chair, Enterprise Educators UK
We need to decide who should be setting the curriculum. The thinking behind these types of survey troubles me. It will be a very dangerous state of affairs if curricular are designed on the basis of a customer satisfaction type survey. We are at a stage when a number of employer organisations' members report that they prefer young employees from eastern Europe rather than our own youngsters. Areas of study were once called disciplines for a reason. Our universities are at risk of producing graduates who are excellent critical consumers.
A wider range of university admissions departments should give more positive consideration to Functional Skills and similar qualifications in their entrance requirements. Students coming through a Functional Skills route will likely have a strong grounding in ‘soft’ skills development alongside their ‘hard’ skills. In addition, the Functional Skills curriculum for Maths at Level 2 could offer pointers to help revise and embed “analysing numerical and statistical information” into different undergraduate and postgraduate courses, particularly when the full breadth of the GCSE Maths curriculum is not needed and where the emphasis on applied “real-world problems” is paramount. What alarms me the most in the HEA’s full survey report is the breakdown of results by discipline: Mathematical Sciences is ranked below all other disciplines in terms of students’ perceptions of their ‘soft’ skills development, including in “being innovative and creative” and “exploring complex real-world problems”. As a professional mathematician myself, working across HE and FE, I know how crucial these skills are purely from the mathematical problems that I have had to tackle in my research (making me consider them more as ‘hard’ skills). The other ‘soft’ skills have also been essential in my career. Of course there are limitations to any study of this type in terms of how to interpret self-perceptions. In particular, I do wonder how Maths students are translating the skills terminology, perhaps differently than in some other disciplines, for example, do they see the process of formulating an equation and developing a plan to solve this as “creative” and extending or applying techniques in a different context as “innovative”? From an employability perspective, this explicit process of translation is imperative if students are to be expected to draw on examples such as these in future job interviews. Dr Anna Foss (London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and The Isle of Wight College)

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