Len Holmes, The Business School, University of North London (at time of presentation)
Presented at The Future Business of Higher Education conference
Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, March 2000
Please do not quote without author's permission
tel. 020- 7753 5349
The rise of the skills agenda in higher education
That there is some relationship between higher education and the occupational order is not in much dispute, albeit that the question of whether this should be so remains a matter of contention. Certainly both the Robbins and the Dearing Reports (Robbins, 1963; NCIHE, 1997) took the view that the purposes and aims of higher education include that of preparation for employment. Current government policy on funding for higher education assumes that graduates will pay a significant part of the costs of their education through loans, which will be repaid from their post-graduation earnings in employment; such earning are expected to be enhanced by virtue of having undertaken higher education (Steel and Sausman, 1997). Employers continue to recruit graduates, and graduates' employment rates and earnings are considerably better than for the workforce as a whole. However, none of this tells us anything about the nature of such a relationship.
The currently dominant understanding of the relationship between higher education and the occupational order is framed in terms of the notion of 'transferable skills'. Such skills are presumed to be generic in nature (rather than specific to any particular subject-discipline or occupation), capable of being acquired and/or developed in the educational context, and 'transferable' to other contexts, particularly the various occupational settings to which graduates aspire and into which they are recruited. A variety of terms are used, usually phrases which are composed of various combinations of the words 'personal', 'transferable', 'generic', 'core', 'key', with the words 'capabilities', 'abilities', 'competencies', 'skills'. Whatever term used, there is generally assumption by proponents that the same concept is being used see, eg, the Key Skills in Higher Education Dissemination Project, (http://www.keyskillsnet.org.uk ), and Murphy and Otter, 1999.
For slightly more than a decade now, a variety of lists of such purported skills have been developed, at course, departmental and institutional level (see Drew, 1998, for review). Noting that the potential list of skills can become so long as to be self-defeating, the Dearing Committee emphasised four of such skills, referred to as 'key skills' (NCIHE, 1997: 9.17), which it recommended should be included in the course programme specifications by all institutions of higher education. Various other agencies have promoted the notion that programmes of higher education should aim to develop students' 'skills' (eg AGR, 1995; CVCP, 1998), such that we might term this the 'skills agenda' in higher education.
This paper will contest the conventional presentation of the skills agenda. It will be argued that the methods typically adopted for purportedly researching such skills are questionable, and fail to accomplish what is claimed in respect of empirical support for the skills agenda. More importantly, the concept itself, it will be argued, is flawed and fails to explain the nature of the relationship between higher education and graduate employment. A proposed reframing of the skills agenda will be presented, based on the notion of 'graduate identity'. Adopting a relational social theory approach to the notion of identity, the model of 'emergent identity' will be explored. It will be argued that identity claim, and its affirmation (or disaffirmation), are effected through conventions of warranting. The graduate identity may be seen as involving a two-fold process of warranting: claiming the right of entry into the occupational arena and claiming the right of re-entry to academia for advanced study and research. The implications of this for research and for the undergraduate curriculum will be considered.
A plethora of lists, but little achievement?
The emphasis upon 'skills' can
be dated back to the statement on 'Higher Education and the Needs of Society',
jointly published by the National Advisory Board for Public Sector Higher Education
and the University Grants Committee (NAB/ UGC, 1984). Drawing attention to the
rapidity at which specific knowledge becomes outdated in the modern world, and
the speed of change in the contexts of the application of such knowledge, the
statement asserted that
The NAB/ UGC report had stated that the skills included
Research studies include that of Smith et al. (1989) which resulted in a list of 20 'transferable employment skills', and the action research project at Sheffield University which produced a 'model' of 108 'skills' organised into eight categories within four 'zones' (Allen, 1993). The Quality in Higher Education project at the University of Central England came up with a set of 'generic or core skills' which, it was claimed, employers and academics agreed should be demonstrated by graduates. These include:
A more positive view is put forward by protagonists for the skills agenda. The report to CVCP by consultants PriceWaterhouse Coopers (CVCP, 1998) claims that "there are many lists of skills being produced but considerable similarity between them". Murphy and Otter (1999) assert, but do not demonstrate, that there has been 'intensive research and development in the field'. However, the research reported through the DfEE sponsored Key Skills Dissemination Project This was based at Nottingham University, managed by Murphy - see website: ( http://www.keyskillsnet.org.uk - accessed 20 February 2000 ) (2000) appears to be evaluation of funded projects. In her report on progress by 10 UK universities in implementing key skills across whole institutions, Otter (1997) states that "the use of the same ability in different universities does not mean that they necessarily share common understanding, and it often obscures fundamental differences of principle". Such a view is consonant with the conclusions reached by Hirsh and Bevan in their study of 'managerial skills language' This study is noted by Smith et al. (1989) but, despite the caveat they issue by citing from Hirsh and Bevan, they nevertheless engage in an analysis of 20 'transferable employment skills', by employment sectors.:
Identifying skills: methodological problems
The variety of skills terms, and the plethora of lists of purported 'skills', are understandable when we consider the methods of enquiry adopted by their protagonists. Some lists appear to be wholly the product of the semantic elaboration of some notion of the sort of graduate that 'we' (ie a particular department, faculty or institution, or the higher education system) are attempting to 'produce'. Whilst the outcomes of 'brainstorming' exercises may give a sense of achievement to the staff involved, their conceptual validity must surely be rated low. It is surprising that academics who would challenge such a crude approach to enquiry in their own disciplines can be so uncritical in their acceptance of it in relation to this vital area.
Other lists are the outcomes of what appears to be a more sophisticated approach, usually accorded the honorific of 'research' Murphy and Otter (1999) refer to 'intensive research and development in the field', but do not indicate what research has been undertaken. It seems clear from the website established as part of the project referred to in their article that they are referring to evaluation research on development projects, none of which appear to have involved empirical studies of graduates to identify how their education relates to the post-graduation employment.. Yet even here we find that the methodology poses serious doubts on the validity of the 'findings'. Typically, the approach is to present a list of skills to a target audience and to seek feedback in the form of rating or ranking. Thus Harvey et al report (1992) the use of a questionnaire to employers, asking them to rate the importance of fifteen qualities that graduates might be expected to have. Similarly, Kemp and Seagraves (1995) used questionnaires listing skills to ask both teaching staff and students about how these were part of the teaching programmes and assessment methods. Smith et al. (1989) sent questionnaires to recent graduates, with a list of 20 skills, asking them to rate the importance of each in their current jobs, on a five-point scale. From such methods, conclusions are reached about the importance of particular skills and the 'restructuring' of courses so that they explicitly develop and assess such skills.
However, in none of these studies is any satisfactory explanation given as to how the lists of skills have been derived. Thus, despite noting Hirsh and Bevan's (1988) caveat regarding the lack of agreement on skills language at the level of meaning (quoted above), describe their approach as follows:
The problem of conceptual validity
It is clear that the concept of 'transferable skills' is rarely subject to critical scrutiny by protagonists for the skills agenda. Indeed, Griffin (1994) refers to the 'aura of untouchability' of the concept of transferability:
Despite such criticisms, advocates for the skills agenda present it as a matter of 'common sense' (Murphy and Otter, 1999). A variety of factors are presented as providing the rationale for including 'skills' development and assessment explicitly within the undergraduate curriculum. These include the increasingly global nature of economic competitiveness, technological change, consequent changes in organisational structures and of career patterns for graduates, increased demands for public accountability and quality assurance on the part of universities, and so on (AGR, 1995; Coffield, 1995; Coffield and Williamson, 1997; NCIHE, 1997; CVCP, 1998; Drew, 1998). However, whilst the term 'skills' may be used in describing the nature of graduates' work, it does not follow that the meaning of the term in such a context is the same as the meaning it has in the context of higher education. The 'need' for higher education to engage in pedagogic practices for developing and assessing key skills, for 'transfer' to graduate employment, cannot be simply read off from political, economic, social and technological analyses.
Even if it were to demonstrated that the meanings were stable within each arena, itself a dubious proposition (Hirsh and Bevan, 1988; Otter, 1997), there is no evidence that there is stability of meaning between them. Mangham and Silver (1986) state that employers generally "do not appear to have the concepts to describe managerial competency", reporting that
Murphy and Otter's (1999) reference to "intensive research and development in the field" presumably refers to the various projects undertaken within institutions of higher education, usually presented as case studies of successful introduction of 'skills' into undergraduate curricula, at course, department or institutional level. Of course, such case study reporting has limited value in research terms, because of their context-bound implementation Such projects are usually funded by external agencies, under competitive bidding arrangements, and require evaluation reports. It is not necessary to argue that any such reports do not reflect the 'ungarnished truth' in order to question their reliability, given the well-attested tendency for accounts of such publicly-funded projects to be 'massaged' (see Holmes and Grieco, 1991).. More seriously, their 'ecological validity' (Usher and Bryant, 1989) is highly contestable. That is, what these projects typically (claim to) achieve is relevant solely to the context in which it is achieved, the educational context. Even if a set of students were to be put through a regime of teaching, learning and assessment activities which purportedly demonstrated that their 'skills' in, say, problem solving had improved, this would tell us nothing about the extent to which those students were better prepared for employment as graduates where their work would include what might be called 'solving problems'.
Such methodological and conceptual difficulties with the skills agenda suggest that there is a need to reconsider the matters in question. As the main concern is that of preparation for graduate employment, we might take as a point of departure for reframing the agenda a consideration of the nature of performance in such employment. The skills agenda assumes that what a person does, their performance, is objectively observable, such that descriptions of desired performance may be articulated and used to assess actual performance. However, such an assumption is flawed because it fails to distinguish between behaviour, actions and acts (Harré, et al., 1985). Once such a flaw is remedied by recognising the distinction, an alternative approach is suggested to address the issues which the skills agenda seeks but fails to address.
If we distinguish between activity, as bodily movement and utterance of sounds, and performance, as socially meaningful action within particular situations, then the question arises as to how activity is transformed into performance. This is clearly not a matter solely under the control of the individual whose activity is in question; rather it implicates processes of interpretation by those who are party to the situation. This view is a key insight of the interpretive traditions within sociology, particularly phenomenological sociology (Schutz, 1967), symbolic interactionism (Rose, 1962; Manis and Meltzer, 1967; Blumer, 1969) and social constructionism (Berger and Luckman, 1966; Gergen, 1999), and of linguistic philosophy, particularly in the work of Wittgenstein (1953) and Austin (1962). Moreover, the particular meaning that is attributed to any situated activity is subject to social interaction, ie an aspect of 'negotiated order' (Strauss et al, 1963).
Performance, then, is subject to interpretive construction and cannot be objectively observed. In order for any particular situated activity to be construed as performance-of-a-kind, it appears that there are two key criteria:
Figure 1 represents pictorially the elements within this process of the interpretive construction of performance, which we might therefore refer to a the 'identity-practice model of performance'.
|Figure 1: Practice-Identity Model of Performance|
Applying this to the issues of concern here, we may say that we are dealing with some form of understanding of what constitutes the practices of the social arenas into which graduates typically enter, and the nature of what may be called the 'graduate identity'. Thus, if we are attempting to analyse the work of graduates in employment, and what counts as 'competent' performance or the exhibition of 'skills' in such work performance, then it is necessary to establish how that performance is construed as the instantiation of the practices within that occupational arena, and how the persons undertaking the work are accepted as having a distinctive identity as graduates relevant to such work performance. Both aspects properly require examination, but for the present we shall focus mainly on the issues concerning identity .
The concept of identity has taken a major part in recent social science theorising A list of the various literatures addressing issues of identity, position, subjectivity, and self would be extensive. [NOTE: for a recent review, see Jenkins (1996)], particularly in recent social psychology seeking to address the nature of the social, and in sociological analysis concerned with understanding the individual actor within the structured social world. The concept of the person as a monadic entity, a sovereign self acting freely and totally rationally, is replaced by that of a 'social self', situated within social relations and a moral order, whose actions are based in explicit or implicit understandings of what should be done (morally and/or pragmatically) given their social positioning.
The concept of identity thus provides an analytical link between the personal and the social, between action and structure. The patterned nature of the processes of social life can be as it is only in so far as there is patterning of the actions of members of the social world. Such patterned action is 'as it should be', expected and predictable, taken-for-granted because of who those members are in relation to each other. Personal identity meshes with social identity; as Jenkins (1996) puts it, there is an internal-external dialectic of identification. The term 'identification' indicates the processual nature of identity, that is continuously undergoing socially production in a process which implicates both the individual person (self-identification) and social ascription.
Taking these aspects of the processual and of the internal-external dialectic, it seems appropriate to adopt the term 'emergent identity' to distinguish this analysis from those based either on identity as social ascription (social identity) or on identity as self-concept (personal identity). What is socially salient is neither the one nor the other, but the situated outcome of the interaction between both. Another way of considering this is that of claim (by the individual) and affirmation Affirmation and its contrary, disaffirmation, may be considered as ascription in relation to claim (and disclaim). (by significant others), or their contraries, disclaim and disaffirmation. The relation between these may be shown orthogonally, in figure 2.
|Figure 2: Claim-Affirmation Model of Emergent Identity|
In this diagram, cell 1 (identity disclaimed and disaffirmed) designates 'indeterminate identity'; the individual neither claims nor is seen by others to occupy the identity of particular concern. Where an individual makes a claim on an identity, eg as a graduate and this is affirmed by significant others, then the individual is seen (by self and others) as having that identity, eg they 'really are' a graduate (cell 4). However, where the individual is seen by others as having a particular identity, but this is disclaimed by the individual, then we could say they have an 'imposed identity' (cell 2). On the other hand, where an individual lays claim on an identity, but this is disaffirmed by others, then we might say that they have a 'failed identity' (cell 3).
We must also consider the issue of emergent identity diachronically, in terms of the processes by which identity claims and affirmations (and disclaims and disaffirmations) are made and have their outcomes over time. Harré (1983) uses the term 'identity projects' to refer to the trajectory by which an individual achieves 'uniqueness within a moral order'. The model in figure 2 may thus be used to consider the identity projects undertaken by individuals, their trajectories from (in the model) 'indeterminate identity' (cell 1) to 'agreed identity' (cell 4). For the issues of concern here, this relates to an individual's trajectory through higher education into their desired position as a graduate. Cells 2 and 3 indicate emergent identities which are the subject of contestation; the individual attempts to disclaim their identity ascription by others (cell 2), or the individual's claim on an identity is disaffirmed by those who are in 'gatekeeper' positions See Holmes and Robinson (1999) for discussion of this in respect of ethnicity of persons seeking entry to managerial positions.. Of course, in principle all emergent identity positions are fragile, ie subject to potential challenge and negotiation. In practice, some form of accommodation may be accomplished, such that an individual's identity in a particular social arena becomes (relatively) uncontested or, we might say, 'stabilised'.
The question now is that of how identity claims, and affirmation/ disaffirmation of such claims, are made. Here we may draw upon the notion of 'warranting', the process whereby, of all the possible ways of construing a certain situation, one particular way is presented as 'correct'. Certain 'conventions of warrant' (Gergen, 1989) are typically drawn upon in such identity claims and affirmations/ disaffirmations. That is, the individual will attempt to present themself as someone 'worthy' of entering the type of occupation for which being a graduate is normally deemed necessary, making such presentation on the basis of what they anticipate will be seen as legitimate grounds. Likewise, those who are 'gatekeepers' to such occupations will seek justify their decisions to allow or disallow entry, by making reference to certain legitimated grounds for such decisions. The language of 'skills' may be seen as constituting such a 'convention of warrant' in respect of 'graduate identity' (Holmes, 1995, 1999).
It is important to distinguish between the conventional skills agenda, and this graduate identity approach, in respect of their implications for the language of 'skills'. The skills agenda seeks to engage in definition, in precise usage of language such that a skills term, a word or phrase, will be taken to denote some particular skill. In contrast, the graduate identity approach seeks to understand how the variety in the language of skills, its rich diversity, provides for the interaction between the parties engaged in the processes (of claim and ascription) by and through which emergent identity arises. It is the extent to which an individual is able to express their claim on the graduate identity through the use of skills language that is likely to improve their prospects of being selected.
Taking such an approach, what is socially consequential is not so much the formal possession of a degree but the social accomplishment of an emergent identity as a graduate. This has been explored so far in this paper mainly with regard to employment, the grounds on which the debate is primarily conducted. However, 'being a graduate' is socially consequential not only in the employment arena, for it is the basis on which re-entry to higher education is obtained, for advanced study and particularly for higher degrees by research. There is thus what we might term a 'double warrant' at work.
The conventional skills agenda has little to say about this other aspect of the pos-graduation trajectories of graduates, except to assert that 'key skills' apply also to advanced study. After all, it is argued, research is just a form of problem solving, and oral and written communication is required in work for a higher degree.
If we use the term 'knowledge' in a general sense to express what constitute the practices in the arena of graduate employment and also the practices in academia, we can identify some critical differences. In the employment arena, we would say that knowledge is applied whereas in academia knowledge is produced. Whilst knowledge production certainly takes place in other arenas (cf Gibbons, et al, 1994), its production within academia is characterised by values of universalism, open access, and essential contestibility. By contrast, in the employment arena knowledge is taken as an asset to be closely guarded; once certain knowledge claims are taken as being the basis for organisational decisions, such claims take on the character of incontestability. The style of textual communication differs largely because the conventions of business and of academic writing have arisen under different orientations to knowledge, its application and its production.
Confusion between these different modes of warranting the graduate identity is likely to hinder rather than help individuals in moving between the different social arenas of employment and academia. Whilst the graduate identity approach accepts the importance of examining the relationship between degree level study and post-graduation employment, it also values the relationship between such study and post-graduate study. This suggests the need for an emphasis in the undergraduate curriculum for students not only to engage with what is taken to be the body of knowledge in a field, for the purposes of application of such knowledge, but also for them to engage with this as a set of knowledge claims and essentially contestable.
Reframing the skills agenda: research and pedagogy
The argument here has been that the conventional skills agenda is seriously flawed, and fails to provide an adequate basis for understanding the relationship between higher education and graduate employment. Once it is recognised that performance implicates interpretation of activity, and that such interpretation requires that the emergent identity (of the persons whose behaviour/ action is under interpretation) be taken into account, then a new set of issues are suggested, both for research and for pedagogic practice. The approach is consonant with current developments in social science theorising which take a 'relational perspective' (Hosking et al, 1995), and with the 'legitimate peripheral participation' approach in situated learning theory (Lave and Wenger, 1991), an approach which has typically been used outside of formal education contexts. However, the amount of sponsorship and funding support for the conventional skills agenda far outweighs that provided for developing the 'graduate identity' approach. Nevertheless, examples of the explicit adoption of such an approach are available, both in terms of pedagogy (Holmes, 1999) and research (Holmes, Green, and Egan, 1998). A variety of other 'personal troubles and public issues' (Mills, 1959) would also appear to be amenable to examination through the 'graduate identity' approach and the practice-identity model which underpins it. These include the inequitable employment outcomes experienced by certain groups (particularly in respect of ethnicity (Brennan and McGeevor, 1990; Berthoud, 1999), age (AGCAS, 1999), and socio-economic class (Purcell et al., 1999). Rather than adopting a skills-deficit explanation, or attributing such outcomes to employer discrimination tout court, the graduate identity approach would seek to understand the processes by which the articulation of identity claim and of ascription tend towards 'failed identity' or 'imposed identity' (cf Holmes and Robinson, 1999).
The graduate identity approach also provides, through the notion of a 'double warrant', a coherent reframing of the 'traditional academic' purposes of higher education ('academic competence') in the context where it is rivalled by notions of 'operational competence' (Barnett, 1994). The ability to engage in knowledge production, according to the traditions of academia (universality, essential contestability, etc) may be articulated as being amongst the aims of the undergraduate curriculum alongside the ability to apply knowledge, in different contexts. The approach has merely been sketched here, but its fuller theoretical elaboration, deployment in empirical studies, and application in pedagogic practice is warranted by its apparent fecundity.
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