The capability curriculum, conventions of assessment and the construction of graduate employability

Presented at Conference on 'Understanding the Social World', University of Huddersfield, 17th-19th July 1995

Len Holmes, The Business School, University of North London (at time of presentation)

The Capability Curriculum

Over the past decade or so, higher education in the UK has been subject to major change. Along with structural changes in terms of expansion of institutions, numbers of students, and modes of funding, there has been a significant attempt to change educational discourse. In general terms, this is marked by the emphasis placed on notions of 'capability', 'personal competence' and 'transferable skills', linked to the notion of 'graduate employability'. Essentially, it is argued that a primary purpose of higher education is to prepare students to enter employment in jobs which require high levels of 'transferable skills' (or 'core skills', 'capabilities', 'personal competences'). In 1984, the state funding agencies for higher education asserted that

"The abilities most valued in industrial, commercial and professional life as well as in public and social administration are the transferable intellectual and social skills." (NAB/ UGC, 1984)

In 1994, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals quoted approvingly from a research project report, which 'indicated that'

"employers expect graduates to exhibit a wide range of attributes. There is growing evidence that academics agree in principle that graduates should be able to demonstrate a number of skills and abilities other than the acquisition of a body of knowledge and theory. The research suggests a set of generic or core skills and attitudes including: willingness to learn, team work, problem solving and a range of personal attributes including commitment, enegry, self-motivation, self-management, reliability, co-operation, flexibility and adaptability, analytic ability, logical argument and ability to summarise key issues." (Harvey and Green, 1994)

Between the dates of publication of the reports from which these quotations are taken, two major national initiatives were established that were concerned with changing higher education curricula and assessment, to incorporate more attention to such 'abilities' and 'attributes'. The Higher Education for Capability project was established as a three-year project from 1988 to take the 'capability debate' to higher education. Major employers and the Department of Employment provided sponsorship

"reflecting a widely held view of the time that higher education was not producing the kind of graduates needed for the challenges of the world of work." (Stephenson and Weil, 1992).

The Enterprise in Higher Education initiative was launched in December 1987, to provide funding for five-year projects in participating institutions intended to bring about changes to the curriculum. These changes are intended to ensure that

"As well as being qualified in a particular discipline, students who have attended a course which includes enterprise will:

(Training Agency, 1989, p5)

For simplicity, I will mostly use the term 'capability' here, treating the other terms as having broadly the same connotation.

These varied initiatives have taken place at the same time as major changes in vocational qualifications. A new framework of 'National Vocational Qualifications' (NVQs) has been developed, based on the notion of occupational competence. In brief, an NVQ is intended to be a 'statement of competence', and is awarded only after an individual has demonstrated performance to nationally prescribed standards, in a full set of activities for the particular occupation, in a wide range of situations. The primary form of assessment is to take place in the workplace, preferably in 'naturally occuring' situations. It is generally accepted that such an approach is inappropriate for most programmes in higher education, although some areas of occupational competence might be assessable in some programmes. However, there are clear affinities between these notions of 'competence' and 'capability', both being concerned with the ability to perform in the ways expected in employment. A key difference lies in the broader connotation of the term 'capability' usually to include personal characteristics deemed to be valuable to themselves personally and to society more widely:

"Capable people have confidence in their ability to (1) take effective and appropriate action, (2) explain what they are about, (3) live and work effectively with others and (4) continue to learn from their experiences, both as individuals and in association with others, in a diverse and changing society." (Stephenson, 1992, p2)

Such calls for change in higher education, for what might be termed a 'capability curriculum', relate not only to the content of the curriculum (and the educational process) but also to the form that assessment takes. Increasingly, there have been attempts to develop alternatives to the traditional methods for assessment used in higher education, and the recording of performance in terms of overall marks or grades and degree classification. Various ways have been tried to assess performance in workplace settings, often involving workplace assessors in addition to or instead of academic staff. 'Profiles', 'portfolios' and 'records of achievement' have been promoted as superior to traditional coursework and end of unit examinations. Stephenson (1993) argues that interest in records of achievement has grown, not only because they are able to convey more detailed information about the range of abilities and interests of a student, but also because they enhance the student's education through their monitoring, reviewing and recording of their own learning. Whilst profiles and records of achievement are also used in assessment of subject specific knowledge and skills, they appear to be most used in documenting assessed capabilities. This will enable the student to have a record of their achievement in these capabilities. As such capabilities are what employers look for in graduate recruits, it is argued, such records of achievement, or profiles of personal competence, can attest to the suitability of the individual for employment, their 'employability'.

Searching for 'capabilities'

Despite the apparent widespread agreement on the importance of such generic capabilities, by whatever term they are called, there has been a notable lack of agreement on how they may be identified. A variety of attempts have been made to determine these supposed abilities. Lists and models abound, of greater or lesser length and complexity. NAB and UGC expressed them in simple terms:

"The personal or non-academic skills of students, which higher education is expected to develop, include the general communication, problem-solving, teamwork and inter-personal skills required in employment." (NAB/ UGC, 1986:3)

In a study of employers' stated perceptions of the 'transferable employment skills' needed by graduates a list of 20 such 'skills' was produced (Smith et al 1989). A project by Nankivell and Shoolbred at Birmingham Polytechnic on staff perceptions of 'personal transferable skills' was based on the view that

"there is a general consensus on the major groups of skills - written and oral skills, interpersonal and teamwork skills, problem solving skills and information handling skills." (Drew, Nankivell and Shoolbred, 1992:11)

Drew's report, in the same paper published by the Standing Conference on Educational Development, concerned students' perceptions of 'personal skills and qualities' (PSQ), as identified in a project at Sheffield City Polytechnic. She states that it was decided not to specify PSQ, regarding this as unhelpful because

"Different PSQ seemed relevant to different subject areas and individuals ... It seemed more helpful to encourage staff and students to themselves identify relevant PSQ." (op cit.:39)

An action research project at Sheffield University led to a list of 108 'skills', which were placed into 8 categories. This was later refined to produce a model which was intended to represent how these 'skills' related to 'zones', in terms of increasing complexity (Allen, 1993). Various institutions participating in the Enterprise in Higher Education initiative have similarly attempted to develop 'skills models', two of which are reported by the CVCP (1994). The Business and Technology Education Council has a framework of seven Common Skills, and student on all Higher National Diploma and Certificate courses must be assessed on these. The Employment Department has developed a Personal Competences model, and NCVQ has developed units in Core Skills. In addition, we might also consider the increasing number of employers developing and using their own (ie different) competency frameworks in graduate recruitment (IRS 1994).

Moreover, there are serious conceptual difficulties with the notion, whatever term used. Bridges (1992) distinguishes between 'cross-curricular skills' and 'transferable skills' in terms of the domains between which transfer is deemed to take place. The former relate to cognitive domains, or subject areas; the latter relate to social contexts. Clearly, the notion of 'capabilities' and the like relates to the latter, concerned as it is with 'transfer' between the context of study (or 'learning') and post-graduation performance, in employment and other social contexts. Unfortunately, Bridges points out, we lack a 'theory of social domains' which would make the notion of such skills intelligible and practical. He goes on to make a further distinction between 'transferable skills' and 'transferring skills'; the former are those supposed abilities which may be deployed in various social contexts with little or no adaption, whilst the latter are those involved in adaption. 'Transferring skills' are

"as it were the meta-skills, the second order skills which enable one to select, adapt, adjust and apply one's other skills to different situations, across different social contexts and perhaps similarly across different cognitive domains..." (ibid)

Such analysis raises severe questions about the conceptual validity of the frameworks of capabilities which are usually presented as self-evidently appropriate bases for making assessment decisions, which purportedly will significantly affect the employment chances of students and also affect the performance of organisations which employ them (or decide not to employ them).


Underlying the claims made for the capability curriculum is a model of the links between education, assessment, and selection for employment (and other post-qualification activity, including advanced study). In simple terms, this model regards education as a process through which the student acquires or develops, as an individual, certain characteristics (such as knowledge, understanding, skills, competences, capabilities). Assessment is the process for judging or measuring the extent to which the individual has acquired or developed these; the judgement/ measurement is then inscribed in the form of a grade or mark if the programme of education is incomplete, or if it is completed, certificated in form of an award, possibly with some rating, eg degree classification. Selection is the process of using these measures or judgements, along with other relevant information about the individual, in the decision whether or not to employ them. If the selection process is undertaken properly, the graduate recruit will then perform as required (given that other factors are right). In principle, it is assumed, it is possible to ensure that all stages in this education-assessment-selection nexus are set up and operated in such a way that the links between the educational process and competent work performance is one of smooth and effective transition. Because in practice this is not happening, then repair is necessary.

This model of assessment is widely albeit implicitly held, and is not a special feature of the capability approach.

"... assessment in education can be thought of as occurring whenever one person, in some kind of interaction, direct or indirect, with another, is conscious of obtaining and interpreting information about the knowledge and understanding, or abilities and attitudes of that other person." (Rowntree, 1977, p4, emphasis added)

"No matter who controls examinations, and for what purposes, the immediate object of an examination is to assess some attributes of the students; it is an instrument of measurement." (Mathews, 1985, p.52, emphasis added)

The issues which are usually addressed in debates about assessment, and attempts to develop 'better' approaches to assessment, are mainly methodological:- how can we measure more effectively (and efficiently, fairly, etc)?. It is a 'folk psychology' model where a person's performance is assumed to be caused by some 'internal' dispositions, ie personality, attitudes, preferences, using some tool-like entity, eg knowledge, understanding, skills, capabilities, a sort of 'homunculus with a toolkit' model. Neither of these can be observed directly, but can be inferred from the performances of the individual in various situations. Whether a student is assessed by means of the essays written in response to questions in a traditional unseen examination or by undertaking some form of 'real work' whilst on placement with an employer, the assumption is that it is possible to gain access to such causal and instrumental entities. Moreover, these are treated as being very stable (though capable of development) so that predictions can be made about likely performance in other situations. So the main principle for ensuring effectiveness is that of validity, ensuring that the methods of assessment do actually measure those qualities and characteristics in question.

Such notions of causality in human activity have been well-explored and demolished by writers in the discursive approach to psychology (eg Gergen, 1985; Harré et al, 1985; Potter and Wetherell, 1987; Edwards and Potter, 1992; Harré and Gillett, 1994). Drawing on the philosophical work particularly of Wittgenstein and Austin, such writers focus on how the actions of humans take place in social settings, within which their meaning is established through discursive interaction. What an individual does is not intelligible through an examination of causes; rather it can only be understood in terms of the discursive explanation of the individual's intentions in relation to some explicable rule, 'normative accountability'. So a student's performance in an assessment activity cannot be taken as a vehicle for discovering some inner ability which causes the performance. Rather, it can be understood only in terms of the student's attempt to influence the actions of the assessors, by following some (implicit or explicit) rules about how one does this. This is illustrated by the frequent complaint by examiners that students 'failed to answer the question set'; assuming the students did not intend to fail, we must conclude that they interpreted the examination setting, and the specific task set in the form of an examination question, in a way that was different from that of the examiner. What cannot be inferred from the students' (inappropriate) performance is how they would or might have performed is they had interpreted the situation and the task in the required manner.

Conventions of Assessment

Assessment is a socially structured process involving a number of different actors engaging in different actions. The usual focus in debates about assessment is on what the students should be required to do. The assessor is treated as making judgements about what the student has done, and what this purportedly shows about the student. The assumption about chronicity is that of the continuing present; the student 'has' knowledge, ability, etc, or 'is' capable, competent, confident etc. Yet when we consider the full socially structured process of education-assessment-selection, we can see more clearly its diachronic nature. In particular, we see that the purposes to which assessment is put are clearly future-oriented. Assessment within a degree programme is concerned with whether or not the student will get a degree, and with what classification. Within academia, the award of a degree and its classification plays a key part in the selection for advanced study, particularly for research degrees. Within the arena of graduate employment, professional-managerial-scientific occupations, a degree has an important role in recruitment and selection by employers. The gate-keepers to these social arenas, advanced study and graduate employment, are not primarly concerned with past performance, but rather with future performance. Implicitly or explicitly, the award of a degree is addressed to such gatekeepers; the outcomes of assessment in higher education are signals about the judgement about anticipated future performance.

However, the future performance can be only anticipated, not known (or even predicted, in the strong sense of that word). Judgements about future performance are inherently subject to the risk of being wrong. Moreover, the immediate consequences of being wrong are usually borne by others, ie those in the situations in which performance is not as anticipated. The reputation and status of the assessors and of the assessment process is therefore crucially dependent on the maintenance of confidence of those who make use of assessment judgements (Holmes, 1994). This is achieved by the use of conventions of warrant (Gergen, 1989), ie discursively-based rationales or justifications for the assessment judgements. The whole chain of processes, linking assessment activities in educational settings, through the inscription of some 'verdict' on the individual (such as class of degree), to the use of such inscribed verdicts for purposes, including recuitment, may be thus seen as a 'convention of assessment', whereby the links in the chain are warranted (Holmes, forthcoming).

The discourse of capability, and also the discourse of competence, may thus be seen in terms of such warranting conventions. 'Capability' does not refer to some internal characteristic or attribute of an individual, but is a discursive element within the social-discursive process by which an individual is constituted as one who may be admitted to those social arenas into which graduates normally enter. One social arena is that of employment, typically in terms of occupations referred to as 'professional', 'managerial', or 'scientific'. The implication of this is that 'employability' must also be seen, not as a personal characteristic, but as a discursive element in the education-assessment-selection process. Employability is not the result of developing and demonstrating capability; employability is a facet of capability, the expression of assessors' warranting activity oriented towards the gatekeepers to graduate employment. Oriented towards the gatekeepers to advanced study, the warranting activity would use a different vocabulary, eg 'suitability' for a taught Masters or for a research degree.

Capability, employability and suitability (for advanced study) are, then, not individual characteristics, identifiable and measurable from performance. They are the discursive warrants for the assessment-selection decisions, inescapably risky judgements about anticipated future performance in social conditions where the attainment and maintenance of confidence in the decision-makers by others is of paramount value. Indeed, it may well be the case that the development of the discourse of capability has enabled employers and their (often self-appointed) representatives to contest the previous conventions of warrant. It is certainly noticeable that the sophistication of 'capability talk' has increased over the past decade of so (eg compare NAB/ UGC 1984 with CVCP, 1994). Little account is taken of research on the actual practices of employers of graduates, particularly in respect of the degree to which these involve processes of ascription rather than assessment of achievement (Brown and Scase, 1994). Contrary to the claims of proponents of the capability curriculum, rather than helping students to gain employment as graduates, profiles of personal competence and records of achievement may serve to stigmatise them as 'less capable'.

Recharting the Capability Agenda

However, critique of the currently dominant formulations of the capability curriculum are unlikely to affect significantly the widespread attempts at its introduction. The current context, in which academia is structurally dependent on state funding and in which there is political consensus on the 'need' for a mass higher education system, places high value on the vocabulary of employment-related skills. Any attempt to displace current formulations of the capability curriculum must seek legitimacy within the current social and political context. However, attempts at introducing the capability curriculum must engage with the traditions of academia, or face the prospect of being undermined by covert if not overt resistance. The danger is that this will also undermine those very traditions valued in academia, espousing disinterested pursuit of knowledge, its production and dissemination, for its own sake, of intrinsic value. We might therefore look at ways in which the critique above may form the basis not only for interpreting the world, but for changing it. After all, academia has, arguably, always been concerned with 'practical' affairs of society, including the occupational (eg see Silver and Brennan, 1988; Barnett, 1990). Moreover, typical presentations of the calls for the capability curriculum adopt the rhetoric of valuing 'traditional academic' education (although the sub-text is often anti-academic).

I suggested that assessment in higher education is a convention of warrant, whereby the award of a degree is taken as warranting entry into the graduate occupational arena, typically into professional, managerial, scientific occupations. It also warrants entry, or re-entry to advanced study, particularly for a higher degree by research. We might therefore say that a degree carries a double warrant. Now normally, attempts to introduce a capability curriculum have been based on the assumption that the requirements for each of these social arenas, occupation and academic, are isomorphic. That is, that there are certain transferable skills (eg problem solving) which may be 'used' in either arena, and so a single, common framework of such capabilities can and should be developed and adopted. Such attempts are mistaken, and the plethora of attempts with little sign of sustainable success may be taken as indicators of the underlying error.

If we take the occupational arena and academia as two, separate though connected 'communities of practice' (Lave and Wenger 1991), albeit that each is highly varied, we can begin to focus on the typical practices in each. Rather than look for the supposed attributes and 'mental tools' which underly these practices, it is the practices themselves which should concern us. Thus, instead of being concerned with students' 'skills of written communication' we can begin to consider how we get students to produce papers (as for a conference or journal), book reviews, research reports, and other sorts of documents that academics produce for other academics, and also (management) reports, memos, briefing papers, etc as used in the occupational arena. By engaging in such practices as a form of 'legitimate peripheral participation' (Lave and Wenger, 1991), the students will be engaged in the social process of education, moving from novice to accepted practitioner.

The Graduate Identity

Harré's concept of identity project (Harré, 1983) may be also used as an approach to reconsidering the process of becoming a graduate. An identity project is the continuing process by which a person seeks to attain and maintain uniqueness and individuality (personal being) whilst also being socially recognised (social being). This involves the 'appropriation' by the individual of the characteristics of socially and culturally (and therefore discursively) legitimated identities. From this follows a stage of 'transformation', making personal sense of the socially acquired understanding, in terms of personal experience. The 'publication' of the actor's claim to the identity, the public expression of the characteristics associated with the identity leads, if successful, to 'conventionalisation' into the personal biography and social order. So the 'moral career' (Goffman, 1961) of the graduate is one achieved through the transition through a set of hazards, leading to esteem, reputation and self-worth, or loss of these - 'spoiled identity' (Goffman, 1963). In this way we can reframe the educational and assessment process, or more properly the education-assessment-selection process, as that of an identity project of becoming a graduate, someone who is highly educated. This would link with Vygotskian-influenced approaches to education (eg Daniels, 1993), and Lave and Wenger's notion of 'legitimate peripheral participation' in communities of practice.

A key aspect of the identity project approach would be the reintroduction of the notion of agency on the part of the student. Despite the rhetoric about 'student-centredness' in the conventional approach to the capability curriculum, it is essentially a socialisation model, one of role-taking rather than role-making. The student's identity is formed by the inscription process involved in recording achievement. The more that the capabilities are specified, and especially where the assessment criteria are specified, the less that the student can engage in a creative transformation of the socially given attributes associated with a graduate. If the education-assessment process is one in which the student is enabled, through opportunities to engage in tasks and activities which are representative of those which graduates do, as professional workers and as academics, then the student can represent these as part of her personal claim on the identity as a graduate. The essential element is that the student must make the claim, and along with it, assert their claim on the right of entry to the social arenas associated with 'being highly educated'.

It is also essential to emphasise the notion of the double warrant. In order to succeed in the claim on the graduate identity, the student must gain acceptance from key parties whose recognition is important. In the assessment-selection phase, the student must engage with gatekeepers to the desired social arenas. As these may be broadly distinguished into the academic and the occupational, the student will have to make the claim doubly, within the languages of the two social arenas. We might therefore extend the socio-linguistic notion of code switching to this process of claiming the graduate identity. Rather than search for a generic vocabulary of capabilities, or even a vocabulary of generic capabilities, we might focus on helping students represent the activities in which they have engaged in the separate languages of academia and the occupational arena. This is more than 'selling oneself' (a rather ominous phrase to apply to job seekers); it is at the heart of the claim on the graduate identity, and is truly student-centred.

Such an approach may thus provide a substantive critique of the currently dominant model of the capability curriculum. Simplistic attempts at developing models of capabilities have failed to yield acceptable and generalisable pedagogic practices. The recognition of the inherent conceptual flaws should lead us to seek an alternative model, which reframes assessment as a social process based on conventions of warrant. The award of a degree constitutes a double warrant, oriented towards anticipated future performance in two possible social arenas, academia and the 'world' of graduate employment. Reframing the education-assessment-selection process as an identity project for the student 'becoming a graduate' enable us to re-introduce the agency of the student, asserting her right of entry into desired social arenas through the claim on the identity as graduate. By maintaining the distinction between the social arenas, we can perhaps enable the call for 'parity of esteem', between the academic and the vocational, to be achieved in a manner which is positive and progressive.


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