Len Holmes

Chapter published in Assiter, A. (ed.) (1995) Transferable Skills in Higher Education,London: Kogan Page

The Irresistible Rise of Transferable Skills?

There does indeed appear to be some quality of irresistibility about the increasing attention being paid to the notion that higher education can and should enable students to develop abilities which are in some way transferable to contexts separate from the subject discipline studied. Over a decade ago, the old NAB (National Advisory Board for Public Sector Higher Education) and UGC (University Grants Committee) endorsed such a view in a joint statement:

"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)

Of course, a variety of terms are used to refer to apparently similar abilities. Usually the term 'skill' (or sometimes 'competence' or 'competency') is prefaced by 'personal' and/or 'transferable'. There is also, of course, the term 'capability', as used by the Higher Education for Capability initiative (Stephenson and Weil, 1992), and the term 'enterprise skills', as originally used in the Enterprise in Higher Education Initiative. Whatever term used, the explicit message is clear: these abilities are important to society and to the individual, and therefore should figure prominently in the curriculum.

"A higher education system which provides its students with these skills is serving society well." (ibid.)

Of course, views (supportive and oppositional) about the supposed need for relevance of higher education to the world outside the academy are not new. In particular, arguments about the extent to which higher education should be separate from the 'practical' affairs of industry and commerce have continued certainly since the nineteenth century (eg see Silver and Brennan, 1988; Barnett, 1990). Certainly, employers and graduates alike have, in reality, taken it for granted that there are certain general abilities which are gained through higher education which are useful and of value in employment. Moreover, there seems to be little evidence that academics have been vociferous in denying this!

What is new in the recent rise to prominence of the notion of 'transferable skills', and the like, is the attempt to place these more centrally within the curriculum. No longer are students assumed to be developing such abilities, almost incidentally to the subject specific learning. Rather, novel approaches to teaching and assessment are to be used, whereby explicit attention is paid to the supposed transferable skills. Indeed, 'teaching' itself becomes a term to avoid, as the emphasis shifts to notions of learning through 'experience', especially in 'real world' settings. In respect of assessment, we have seen the rise of 'profiles' and 'portfolios' which are deemed to provide more meaningful accounts of a students' abilities than overall course grades and degree classifications.

The Context of Higher Education

Such developments do, of course, have to be seen within the wider context. Conservative Government policies, and the policies of the opposition parties, have emphasised the perceived need for education to help improve the performance of the UK's economy. Structural changes in higher education, particular the massive increase in student numbers without proportionate increase in resources, have put great pressures not only on academic and administrative staff but also the systems which they operate. Moreover there have been major structural changes in graduate employment patterns, along with high levels of debt with which students graduate. These and other factors combine in lending support to those who argue that institutions of higher education should change their curricula to meet more explicitly the needs of employers and therefore of students seeking jobs and careers on the basis of their higher education.

Such conventional employment-related justification for transferable skills has been clearly and cogently demolished by Gubbay (1994). Moreover, even if such skills were required by employers, it does not follow that universities should help students to develop them and assess students in respect of them. After all, universities are not surrogate employment and training agencies. However, it does appear that the rhetoric adopted in promoting notions of higher education being (at least in part) preparation for employment does serve to persuade many of the need for developing and assessing 'personal' or 'transferable skills'.

Searching for 'transferable skills'

A variety of initiatives in higher education have involved some form of search for these supposed abilities, by whatever term they are called. 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).

I shall return to the issue of the variety of such schema, but at this point it is important to recognise the positivist notions underlying these searches. The 'skills' are treated as having some independent reality, capable (in principle) of being identified and to be causally related to performance in a variety of settings. Once they have been identified generally, they can be identified in particular individuals, ie individuals can be assessed to determine the extent to which they possess such abilities. Find some way of measuring these abilities and you then have a way of recording students' transferable skills, to include on some form of profile or transcript.

The positivist tendency in this area may also be seen in the broader area of competence-based education and training. There is now a considerable body of critical literature in that broader area, focussing particularly on flaws arising from the underlying positivism (eg Ashworth and Saxton, 1990; Jacobs, 1990; Marsh and Holmes, 1990; Marshall, 1991; Stewart and Hamlin, 1992; Holmes, 1993; Assiter, 1993). Many of those critical views apply also in respect of transferable skills. Moreover, it does seem to be a rather naive positivism, with no attempt to engage in the rigorous hypothetico-deductive methodology normally adopted in positivist psychological studies. This would treat transferable skills as 'hypothetical constructs', taken as theoretical explanatory variables whose meaning is related to observable phenomena (and subject to empirical testing) rather than presumed entities in some non-observable domain (eg the 'mind') (Harré and Gillett, 1994).

The lists of supposed skills tend to consist of a varied mix of different sorts of things, including 'personal qualities', 'values', particular 'skills' as well as the ability to 'apply knowledge and understanding'. Quite how these differ from each other, and how they can, if different sorts of things, be linked together as similar (ie all 'transferable skills'), is not explained. Nor is explanation provided on how these 'transferable skills' give rise to (cause?) performance. Nor is there an explanatory theory of the contexts or domains, within which 'transfer' supposedly takes place (Bridges, 1992). There are, then, serious problems with current formulations.

Rethinking Transferable Skills

In their review of the language used by employers in talking about the skills of managers, Hirsh and Bevan concluded that, whilst there was evidence of an emerging single language, this

"exists in terms of common words but not in terms of meaning." (Hirsh and Bevan, 1988:78)

Earlier, Mangham and Silver (1986)had lamented the poverty of the language of managerial abilities, which impeded employer commitment to management training. Both pairs of researchers appear to assume that more precision in the terminology was both desirable and achievable. However, this may be an assumption worth questioning, particularly in the light of recent scholarship in the social and human sciences which seriously considers language use (eg Potter and Wetherell, 1987; Shotter and Gergen, 1989; Burkitt, 1991; Edwards and Potter, 1992; Harré and Gillett, 1994).

The representational or 'picture theory' of language has been long discredited. This view regards the main use of language as that of representing, through symbolic forms, relationships between entities in the world. Thus most significant utterances were either true or false, depending upon whether or not the representation of circumstances in the world was accurate. Such truth or falsity could thus be tested empirically, by observing the circumstances held to be represented. The extreme form of this view was embodied in the verification principle of Logical Positivism. Those utterances which were not, in principle, capable of such testing could not be regarded as factual, but merely expressive. So, at a stroke all moral and metaphysical statements were rendered as incapable of being true or false; they were pseudo-statements, mere expressions of feelings or preferences.

The philosopher J L Austin effectively demolished such a simplistic view of the nature of language by pointing out that it is essentially a social practice. That is, we do things with words, such as promising, thanking, apologising, congratulating, approving. Thus

"...many specially perplexing statements do not serve to indicate some specially odd additional feature of the reality reported, but to indicate (not to report) the circumstances in which the statement is made or reservations to which it is subject or the way it is to be taken and the like." (Austin, 1962:3)

Taking this view, we might then consider whether 'specially perplexing statements' such as those concerned with abilities deemed to be necessary for performance are not statements about causal connections in the world, or descriptions of people. Rather, they are the basis on which we claim 'reasonableness' in the way we take decisions about granting or withholding credits, qualifications, jobs, etc. (Holmes, 1993; Holmes and Joyce, 1993).

If we consider how such terms as 'competence' and 'skill' have practical usefulness, it is clear that this arises from their future-reference. That is, we judge that someone's future performance (of some tightly or loosely specified kind) will be as we would desire it, and so take some action or make some decision on the basis of that judgement. Such judgements are, of course, often made on the basis of evidence we have of past performance. However, such past performance would usually pass unremarked except in respect of what we believe it enables us to infer about future performance. That is, competence inferred is greater than performance observed (Holmes and Joyce, 1993).

Being future-oriented, these judgements are inherently subject to the risk of being wrong. Moreover, an important aspect of such decisions and actions is that they are made in social settings, such that their consequences are borne not just by those taking them. So, for example, in recruiting graduates, a selection panel will appoint certain individuals who will then work for particular managers who were not involved in the recruitment process. In order to maintain confidence in their recruitment decisions, and to assure continued involvement in the process, the recruiters will seek to account for their choices in ways which are accepted as reasonable. Thus the language used to refer to the supposed characteristics of the candidates, on which choices were made, may be seen as 'conventions of warrant' (Gergen, 1989), ie socially legitimated discursive accounts used to claim to be acting reasonably. Indeed, the whole chain of processes linking assessment activities in educational settings, through the inscription of some 'verdict' (eg class of degree awarded) on the individual, to the use of such verdicts for other purposes such as recruitment may be seen as 'conventions of assessment' whereby the various links in the chain are warranted (Holmes, 1994).

A social view of skill and transfer

By rejecting the positivist assumptions within traditional approaches to transferable skills, it is therefore possible to develop an alternative, social-discursive approach. Under such a view, both the notion of 'skill' and that of 'transfer' change. Now they become part of the language in which the key parties to the education-employment nexus can engage with each other. Those key parties particularly include students/ graduates, employers and teachers. Employers can use the skills language to express what it is they are seeking in graduate recruits. Indeed, to some extent, the notion of 'transferable skills' has enabled employers, or at least certainly those claiming to speak on their behalf, to express dissatisfaction with what graduates could do. Such a claim, whatever its validity and its significance for education, has certainly been a powerful aspect of the rhetoric supporting policies for change.

Rather than engaging in a strategy of resistance to the skills agenda, educators may attempt to use the language to positive effect in two ways. First, they can build the case for continued and expanded resources from society, through the state, for higher education, by articulating more clearly the claim that it does indeed enable students to develop these prized skills. Secondly, students may be helped to use the skills language to articulate what they can do, and what they have done, in a way that is, reportedly, understood by employers. Both of these require an appropriation of the language, from its use in the call for change on the part of higher education to its use in asserting the value of higher education to society.

The notion of 'transfer' also changes in this approach. No longer is this seen as some process by which the graduate transfers some purported ability from an academic context to the employment setting. Rather, those who are engaged in decisions (on awarding qualifications or in recruitment) 'transfer' the warrant, endorsing as 'good' past performance and taking this as a reasonable basis for inferring that future performance in a different setting will be 'good'. The vocabulary used to describe both past and anticipated performance is a common one.

It is important that such a view of the language of transferable skills is not mistaken for the pseudo-precise conceptual classification system which positivist approaches would adopt. It is, rather, to be seen as a normal form of language. As such, it is imprecise and 'fuzzy', whereby meaning is not fixed in advance but negotiated through the responsive nature of engagement between the parties involved. It is no different from other aspects of social reality, which is, as Shotter (1993) argues, conversational. Normal language is rich in potential meanings, rather than a limited set of specific, precise terms. No wonder that those attempting to produce some standard list of skills terms have found such variety in the language actually used, as noted above. Not only is this to be expected, it is essential if the language of skills is to be of value!

Once we drop the misleading idea that we can achieve some precise definition of a specific set of transferable skills which will be of use in the manner desired, we can also drop the notion that we must find some methods for assessing students on these supposed abilities. Rather, the task now turns to one of helping students to articulate their claims to be able to do the kinds activities which are conventionally expected of those who are highly educated. This involves developing their fluency in the appropriate languages, that of the immediate academic context as determined by the discipline being studied and that of the wider social context. It is through such language use that they can not only enhance their prospects in gaining access to desired employment but also act in an 'accountable' manner (see Shotter, 1989) when engaged in such employment.

This supports those approaches under initiatives such as Higher Education for Capability and Enterprise in Higher Education which attempt to develop student-centred, process-oriented forms of profiling, rather than assessor-centred (teacher or employer), product-oriented forms of records of achievement. Students need to engage in the use of the language of competence or transferable skills, through interaction and negotiation with others and themselves, not be 'branded' with some fixed, externally-determined (and so counterfeit) measure of ability.

Of course some might, and have, objected that we can't allow students to lay claim to such abilities without checking that they're not lying, or exaggerating (or even under-estimating themselves)! This misses the whole point that the vocabulary of transferable skills is effectively meaningless unless the student is able to appropriate its use in their own experience, within the appropriate social ('conversational') contexts. This would involve the ability to justify any claim made to particular skills by pointing to the performances and activities through which they have been developed and/ or exhibited. It would involve being able to negotiate the significance of such performances and activities with others, including their peers as well as tutors and prospective employers. The very nature of this social view denies any particular party any special gifts of insight into the 'reality' of students' abilities.

I am not claiming that this view of transferable skills, personal competence, etc, is itself without difficulties. We have to be alert to the way that changing language also changes the nature of the social reality which is in part constructed through language use (the 'order of things' to use Foucault's phrase). In my view, this emphasises the need for educators to engage with the transferable skills approach, to influence the direction it takes, rather than take a principled stance of maintaining 'purity' by disengagement. Under current and emerging political, economic and social conditions, the meaning of higher education and its relationship to wider society is being remade. It seems clear that the notion of 'transferable skills' will form a key part in that remade meaning. The question is, what meaning will be attached to the notion of transferable skills, and who will determine that meaning?


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