Sunday, 16 May 2010

Education vs. transferable skills

In recent years it has become standard practice in most UK university courses to emphasise the 'transferable skills' that our students are supposed to gain by studying for their degrees. The term 'transferable skills' seems to mean a diverse range of skills that will supposedly be useful to the students when they seek employment in the job market, and includes such things as: presentation skills; the ability to develop and sustain an argument in an essay; facility in the use of standard IT tools; quantitative skills at an approriate level; and various other things. I've always been a bit sceptical about the merits of highlighting such skills, for two key reasons:

(a) I usually have no idea what career any given student might wish to pursue, and hence cannot judge what particular 'skills' might prove useful to him or her. And in any case, students who do have a fair idea what they wish to do (or who have sought advice from the Careers Service), will be able to work out for themselves what 'skills' they need to acquire - and they are the ones who surely have the incentives to make sure they learn what they need. It seems to me that students should be treated as young adults, and that we should refrain from spoon-feeding them material we think ought to be useful to them - for how can we know?

(b) More importantly, I hold the old-fashioned view that universities are fundamentally about educating people, not really about the inculcation of generic 'skills'. By education, here, what I mean is in part the transmission of an established, and often still evolving body of knowledge in a given subject area or discipline; and in part, encouraging critical and analytical thinking about that body of knowledge. This is a difficult, challenging and frequently exciting task, especially when students come up with unexpected questions that lead to novel lines of argument, or when you (the teacher) realise in the middle of a lecture that a supposedly standard argument is actually not quite right - as I have sometimes experienced.

Not long ago, when I was culling and binning lots of old material in preparation for moving office, I found myself thinking again about this issue of education vs. skills. For I came across some of my old lecture notes from the early 1980s. They were hand-written - no word processors then, and I had evidently not chosen to have them typed up by the departmental office. More interestingly, while they were obviously a bit dated, they were entirely about economics. There was not a word about skills, transferable or otherwise, nor even anything about course or lecture objectives, nor statements about what wonderful new things the students would be able to do after following my course. Yet despite these shocking lacunae, I thought they were pretty good lecture notes - they stood the test of time surprisingly well.

This made me think that a lot of what goes into our teaching material these days - almost everything except the core academic content, in fact - is not there because it necessarily makes our teaching better than it used to be, but more often it is there to tick the boxes of the various teaching appraisals to which our universities are increasingly subject. So called transferable skills are thus part of the game we play with those who evaluate our teaching, and I remain quite sceptical of their benefits for our students.

Just to be clear, by the way, I should add here that I am not against skills in general. But to a large extent, it does seem to me that the skills we teach through our courses are mostly quite low-level skills that anyone with the right incentives could learn for themselves quite rapidly as and when they needed to do so. I think a university education should transmit high-level skills such as flexibility and adaptability in the workplace; the ability and willingness to learn new things; and initiative and independence. These are surely far more important for people throughout their lives, whatever they end up doing.

No comments:

Post a Comment