The Poverty of Skills Thinking in Higher Education
by Frank Furedi - September 12, 2013
This article explores and criticizes the ascendancy of skills thinking in Higher Education. Drawing on the experience of the United Kingdom and Europe it argues that the focus on skills acquisition in universities is paralleled by a tendency to devalue the intellectual content of academic subjects. Frequently this instrumental turn of education also leads to trivialization of the meaning of a skill.
In principle there is no reason why the university ought not serve a variety of different causes. A robust and forward looking higher education sector can combine its commitment to cultivating the life of the mind and promoting cultural and intellectual life with providing society with the highly motivated and skilled people required for the maintenance of economic progress and efficiency. The university is able to offer such diverse contributions to society because of the knowledge, scholarship, research and teaching that academics provide.
Unfortunately, policy makers rarely consider the intangible investment of effort involved in scholarship and research that goes into and constitutes the essential foundation of academic life. Their concern is almost entirely with the quantifiable outputs of higher education. Such utilitarian concerns have always characterized the approach of governments and business towards higher education. What has changed during the past two decades is the unprecedented degree of emphasis of these sectors on turning higher education into a training ground for the labor market. Consequently the higher education sector is under formidable pressure to subordinate its activities to what is presented as an economically sensible skills agenda.
Universities have always been in the business of educating students to become skilled engineers, skilled doctors or skilled scientists. Acquiring such skills through the application of knowledge gained was and continues to be integral to the work of higher education. However the focus of the current skills agenda is motivated by a very different impulse. Its emphasis is on training rather than education and its objective is to fundamentally transform the purpose of a university. One symptom of this shift in emphasis is that skills are explicitly valued above education.
During the past year a series of official reports have demanded that universities shift their teaching from a knowledge-based curriculum to one that privileges skills. An example of this crude approach is provided by the European Commissions report, Rethinking Education Strategy, which was published in November 2012. The aim of the report is to make education more relevant by producing flexible people who can be easily absorbed into the labor market. To realize this objective the EU Commission called for a fundamental shift in education, with more focus on learning outcomes- the knowledge, skills and competences that students acquire. It warned that merely having spent time in education is no longer sufficient (European Commission, 2012). Since merely spending time in education has never been sufficient, what the EUs rhetoric really means is that education as such has little intrinsic significance. What really matters is that graduates possess the skills deemed relevant to employers.
The reports conclusion, titled Rethinking Education: Investing in skills for better socio-economic outcomes, was formally accepted on 15 February 2013 at an EU Council of Education Ministers in Brussels. The EUs Rethinking Education Strategy is wholly committed to the glorification of skill outputs. It also demonstrates a casual indifference to inputs made through knowledge acquisition and scholarship. Similar sentiments have been advocated by a variety of international institutions such as the OECD, UNESCO and the World Bank.
It is important to note that for policy makers devoted to the skills agenda, learning outcomes are not only stand-alone and distinct objectives but also far more significant than education. As Andreas Schleicher, an advisor to the OECD secretary general explained, in the past the focus was on delivering education; now it is on learning outcomes. Schleicher added that now accumulating knowledge matters a lot less (Sharma, 2013). What also matters a lot less is discipline based academic knowledge.
SKILLS TRUMP KNOWLEDGE
The problem with the current skills agenda is not its concern with economic efficiency or the significance it attaches to the employability of graduates but its devaluation of academic knowledge.
The principal source of the rationalization of knowledge in Britain is the influential 1997 Dearing Report. The Dearing Report claimed that its consultations with employers showed that they wanted graduates to have a wide range of skills. While there was no consensus as to what skills were wanted, Dearing took the view that there were four skills that were crucial for the future of society. The four skills identified were communication skills, numeracy, use of information technology and learning to learn.
The reports justification for including learning to learn as a key skill throws light on the epistemological premise of the Dearing agenda. It stated that we include learning how to learn as a key skill because of the importance we place on creating a learning society at a time when much specific knowledge will quickly become obsolete (Dearing, 1997, paragraph 9.18).
The proposition that because we live in a constantly changing world where knowledge will become rapidly obsolete actually renders much of academic learning irrelevant to the needs of society. According to the Dearing paradigm change is an omnipotent force that, by its very nature, turns prevailing forms of disciplinary knowledge redundant. Advocates of the skill agenda tend to present change in a dramatic and mechanistic manner that exaggerates the novelty of the present moment. The fetish of novelty is coupled with an addiction to the latest Big Idea. From this perspective, knowledge is represented as a momentary epiphenomenon and its acquisition is treated as an unproblematic and technical accomplishment. The representation of academic knowledge as an unstable and transitory phenomenon has become an unstated core assumption of advocates of the outcomes driven skills agenda. The devaluation of the authority of academic knowledge provides the main argument for shifting the focus of the work of the university from education to skills training.
The claim that transmitting knowledge to students loses its relevance in an information-rich age fails to understand the distinction between knowledge and information. A societys knowledge gives meaning to new information, by allowing people interpret new facts and helping society to understand what significance to attach to them. Nor is knowledge reducible to information and facts. The knowledge acquired through academic study is based upon the assimilation of concepts and theories. Unlike empirical knowledge its conceptual and theoretical foundation does not become outdated over-night. Theoretical and conceptual knowledge developed centuries ago in philosophy, mathematics, economics or sociology are not consigned to irrelevance just because of subsequent breakthroughs and developments. Although concepts and theories are often rejected and found wanting they provide a crucial link in the chain of development of distinct fields of study.
Of course through appropriating new experience, knowledge itself develops. But the latest knowledge is organically linked to that which preceded it. Scepticism towards the authoritative status of knowledge implicitly calls into question the meaning of academic education itself. Once the knowledge of the past is rendered obsolete, what can education mean? If disciplinary knowledge is regarded as a fleeting insight into yesterdays experience what is there left to teach?
The alternative offered to the knowledge-based scholarship is an agenda that encourages students to acquire skills that allow them to adapt to a constantly changing environment. From this standpoint, what is important is not what students know but their ability to adapt to new circumstances. So the proposed shift from academic education is not towards another kind of education but towards training. The new pedagogy is less interested in students learning a subject than in students acquiring the generic skill of learning to learn. However, people do not learn to learn in the abstract. Academic learning occurs in a specific intellectual and disciplinary context. And so do skills. It is through the hard work of mastering a specific domain of disciplinary knowledge that the so-called skills associated with conceptualizing, abstracting, theorizing kick in. Those who gain the capacity for critical thought and reflection possess a context-driven and not an all-purpose skill. That is why so-called generic skills like problem solving need to be tested, reappropriated and recontextualized through an engagement with a new body of knowledge
THE BANALIZATION OF SKILLS
The polarized representation of knowledge and skills underestimates the organic relationship between them. One can distinguish between knowledgeaccomplished through learning principles, concepts and factsand skills, which refers to the capacity to use that knowledge and apply it in specific contexts. In reality the two are inextricably linked together since the gaining of knowledge, particularly of deep knowledge, requires such skills as the ability to conceptualize, compare and think critically. There is a dynamic process through which a greater depth of knowledge is achieved through application. The acquisition of knowledge exists in a creative relation with the experience of using the power of abstraction or of experimentation.
Similarly what is applied and how it is used depends on the problem to be solved. In my field of sociology the methods used in research are given by the specific problem to be solved. Research skills are constantly re-configured and developed in response to the demands posed by specific problems.
Knowledge and skills are not separate and or unconnected accomplishments. So how are they connected? Knowledge is logically prior to the acquisition of analytical skills. Why? Because it provides a specific intellectual context through which skills are acquired. The logical priority of knowledge does not mean that skills are unimportant or even less important. It simply means that academic knowledge provides the intellectual and cultural pre-supposition for the exercise of what Aristotle called phronesisthe virtue of practical thought. Analytical skills are organically linked to knowledge and gain depth through the elaboration of theoretical knowledge through its application.
Policy makers tend to turn the relation between knowledge and skills upside down. Their pronouncements on education policy communicate the conviction that skills are the principal virtue. Knowledge is accorded the secondary status of providing a resource for the acquisition of skills. Whats more they claim that in an Information Rich Era the provision and acquisition of knowledge is a relatively banal task in comparison to the challenge of acquiring the right set of skills. Higher Education Is Overrated: Skills Arent, declares an article on the website of the Harvard Business Review. Michael Schrange, who is a research fellow at MIT Sloan Center for Digital Business, wrote that he knows of doctoral candidates whose great knowledge does not confer great skill, Apparently they are a bunch of academic clutzes and their formal educational accomplishments misrepresent their skill set outside the academy (Schrange, 2010.)
Paradoxically the anti-academic ethos that drives the skills agenda undermines an institutions capacity to educate students to acquire high-grade skills. Indeed, the current tendency to devalue the status of knowledge in academic learning actually undermines the universitys capacity to provide students with genuine high-grade skills. Since what defines this agenda is an obsession with quantifiable outputs, what goes into the development of skills is often overlooked. Consequently, the advocacy of skills as the object of higher education does not in practice mean a genuine commitment to the education of skills.
Through the process of detaching skills from knowledge and disciplinary content they often acquire a banal, almost trite character. An inspection of the literature and university websites and training programmes indicates that literally any dimension of students lives can and is recycled as a skill. Students are continually exhorted to acquire a variety of practical skills because of their alleged contribution to improving their grades, their prospects of gaining employment or their social life. Use the Undergraduate Skills programme to develop your academic, personal and professional skills, improve your marks, impress potential employers, and network with other Warwick students counsels the Warwick University website (Warwick University, 2013). Through a language that combines the narrative of self-help with the language of managerial therapy, students are urged to Stand out from the crowd: identify, develop and know how to articulate what you have to offer. To acquire such personal qualities students can choose to develop their skills by clicking on the button titled Knowing Yourself or Organising yourself and time or Thinking about a career. More academically interested students can opt for Writing Essays and assignments or Making presentations.
University skills programs are inexorably driven towards the project of credentializing life. Virtually everything that a student does can be reconfigured as transferable skills. The University of Exeter promotes its Skills for Life by claiming:
As well as careers skills such as compiling CVs and interview techniques, Employability and Graduate Development provides excellent training to help you develop other skills which you will find invaluable in life from problem solving to running events, assertiveness to chairing a meeting, you will gain everything you need for a great start. You can also develop your business and personal skills by taking an IT, leadership, or entrepreneurship module as an option outside your main subject. (Exeter University, 2013)
This university also offers The Exeter Award, which is an achievement award that is designed to enhance your employability by providing official recognition and evidence of extra-curricular activities and achievements that you undertake while at Exeter. And what kind of activities are deemed suitable for credentialization? How about attendance at Employability and Graduate development events and other skills sessions? It appears that attendance is itself a skill that can be credited to serve as evidence of employability.
It is likely that numerous graduate development events provide services that some students will find useful. However, what these schemes conspicuously fail to do is to provide high-grade skills. What they often offer are caricatures of skills. So going to the library or using an on-line catalogue is rebranded by the University of Nottinghams Faculty of Medicines Generic Skills Training Course as a library skill. Indeed they offer both an introductory and an advanced course into the complex world of library usage. The use of a web browser to find, explore and develop relevant information-in other words to Google- has been reinvented as an Information Technology Skill in numerous undergraduate skills frameworks.
Sadly the fantasy world of the undergraduate skills framework has also been inflicted on research students in the form of The Researcher Development Framework. Amongst the numerous pseudo skills this framework touches on are personal qualities such as enthusiasm, perseverance, integrity and self-confidence. After reading the framework one is forced to draw the conclusion that everything in life has been turned into a skill (Nottingham University, 2013).
When a university sets itself the objective of training its graduates to write a cv it tells the world that it takes the employability of its students very seriously. No doubt some policy makers will be delighted to discover that UK universities have succeeded in delivering the learning outcome of cv preparation for their graduates. But something important is lost when universities adopt the rhetoric and values of a human resources organization.
Universities do not particularly excel as training institutions. What they are very good at is the provision of excellent disciplinary based academic education. And because they are able to provide students with sophisticated conceptually informed knowledge they are also in a position to help students acquire the high-grade skills they require to make their way in a complex world. All the analytical skills that are needed in the 21st century are mediated through the study of academic disciplines. That is why the current tendency to devalue the content or, to use the jargon, the inputs of education, is another way of saying that we dont take high-level skills seriously! Neglect academic education and you will fail to provide the type of knowledge that can provide the foundation for demanding skills.
Dearing, R. (1997). National Committee of Enquiry into Higher Education. Higher education in the learning society. Norwich, UK: HMSO.
European Commission. (2012, November 20). Press Release: Commission presents new Rethinking Education strategy.
Exeter University. (2013). Skills For Life- Undergraduate Study. Retrieved from:http://www.exeter.ac.uk/undergraduate/employability/skills/
Nottingham University (2013) Researcher Development Framework. Retrieved from http://www.vitae.ac.uk/researchers/428241/Researcher-Development-Framework.html
Schrange, M. (2010, July 29). Higher education Is overrated: Skills arent. Harvard Business Review.
Sharma , Y. (2013, January 6). A focus on skills increasingly links higher education with employment. University World News Global Edition.
Warwick University. (2013). Undergraduate Skills Programme. Retrieved from http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/scs/skills/usp/