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

prepared for 'Recording Achievement' conference, University of North London and Higher Education for Capability, March 1994

The development of novel approaches to assessment, whether formative or summative, including profiling, recording achievement, portfolio development and learning contracts, should not be seen as merely concerned with technical issues about what is learned. Any educational innovation will concern wider issues than transactions between students, teachers, and the subject matter of the course of study concerned. We have to consider why these innovations have taken on such importance that they are the basis for special initiatives, such as Higher Education for Capability and Enterprise in Higher Education. Why these particular innovations? Why now? Why such interest in them? And, of course, why is there resistance and opposition to them from within higher education?

There is clearly a crisis of legitimacy for higher education. The reductions in funding, both to universities and to students, are symptomatic of this crisis. The underlying cause is the loss of credibility that higher education engages in socially desirable activities, worthy of the demands made upon public funding. Universities no longer have monopoly on knowledge production, as a wide range of research bodies, both independent and company-based, and 'think-tanks' have developed and gained public recognition. Universities also no longer have a near-monopoly on knowledge dissemination, as changes in literacy levels and modern technology-based media has opened up access to knowledge. Now, the role that universities have in accrediting individuals, who have pursued studies according to university-determined requirements, is under severe challenge. The meaning of a university degree, what it signifies, is no longer unquestionable and unquestioned. Universities must find a way of expressing an acceptable answer to the question if they are to regain and retain the legitimacy required for continued support from public expenditure in the face of competing demands, both upon such expenditure and that such expenditure should be reduced.

It is, of course, important to avoid any essentialist notion when considering the meaning of a higher education qualification. There is no transcendent realm of meaning to which we can appeal to claim that the degree awarded to a particular individual is a representative of some pure ideal, standing outside history, specific socio-economic and political configurations, and the various institutional practices which arise and change under different conditions. Rather, the particular meaning that a university degree carries has changed and developed throughout history. Indeed, it may not really make sense to talk of a single meaning, even at a particular point in history, but rather we might talk about a cluster of meanings arising from a complex of interests of various parties. These interest-parties include the state (itself a complex of forces), the institutions of higher education, academics, students, employers, and increasingly the mass media.

The different meanings have been described by various writers. The authors of a recent report on assessment in higher education express their view in terms of the purposes of higher education. Their report, which significantly was published by and based on work funded by the Employment

Department rather than by the Department for Education, lists four purposes the authors identify:

"a a general educational experience of intrinsic worth to the individual student in its own right

b a preparation for knowledge creation (or dissemination or application) in a particular subject or field

c specific vocational preparation usually linked to entry to a profession

d preparation for general employment not tied to any one profession, service industry, or occupational 'family'." (Atkins et al, 1993, p.18)

In simpler terms (though not necessarily conceptually simpler!) we tend to distinguish between 'academic' and 'vocational', with items (a) and (b) in the Atkins et al framework coming under the heading of 'academic', and (c) and (d) coming under 'vocational'.

This distinction is often regarded as marking a fault-line in educational philosophies, generally labelled 'liberal educationalist' and 'vocationalist'. Contestation about the purposes of higher education, and how these are best pursued, usually takes place on the ideological ground whose contours are marked by the extremes of these opposing philosophies. So innovations such as recording achievement and profiling are presented as not merely being more effective (through enhanced student motivation and more explicit elaboration of learning requirements), but also as promoting higher levels of learning (through reflection) and personal autonomy ('empowerment'). However, these innovations are also usually framed in terms of their instrumental value, particularly although not exclusively with respect to their relationship to employment. They are thereby subject to scepticism of many of those who, as teachers in higher education, need to be brought in as willing participants in using such novel approaches. Even if they do not articulate their scepticism in terms of a fully elaborated philosophy of liberal education, they will draw upon its notions in expressing their opposition.

It is vitally important, then, that innovations such as recording achievement and profiling are based upon a rationale which is likely to attract widespread support amongst higher education teachers. The greater the distance they are asked to move from conventional practices, the greater is likely to be their opposition. This particularly applies where the approach turns assessment and the award of a degree into a form of surrogate recruitment process for employers. The emphasis on records of achievement and profiles as products tends, in my view, to do this. Even where these are based on student originated criteria and on student self-assessment, they constitute some apparently finalised and therefore intrinsically alienated description of the student.

Yet it is clear that, under current and emerging conditions, in order to maintain societal support, higher education will need to show its relevance to employment. To a large extent, the various innovations have been promoted because of claims that graduates lack the abilities required for effective performance expected in employment. The mere award of a degree is, it is argued, in itself an insufficient indicator of those abilities. This particularly applies in the still relatively large number of graduate entry posts for which no specific degree subject is required. Over more than a decade an emphasis has been placed on transferable, personal skills or competences as the 'abilities most valued in industrial, commercial and professional life as well as in public and social administration' (NAB/ UGC, 1984). The emphasis in many of the programmes developed by institutions funded under EHE on 'skills of enterprise' is another example of this view. However, much of the work on transferable skills has largely failed to provide an approach which has gained widespread acceptance. This is perhaps due, in part, to the proliferation of lists of such supposed 'skills' with little coherent conceptual and theoretical basis.

Of course, the perceptions of prospective employers are becoming more important than may have previously been the case. Government, as the major funder of higher education through tax revenues, has increasingly paid greater attention to the expressed perceptions of employers of graduates. So when such employers state that many graduates lack the kinds of abilities that they may reasonably expect of them, such statements have been taken at face value. However, the fact that employers make such statements does not necessarily mean that they are correct, and that the skills supposedly lacking should be introduced or take greater priority in university education. It does mean that, in order to promote graduates' career prospects, employers need to be assured that it is sensible to recruit those who are awarded higher education qualifications. This is particularly important as the number of such graduates increases disproportionately to the increase in traditional 'graduate jobs', and as the social characteristics of graduates also changes.

An alternative interpretation of employers' expression of dissatisfaction is that the language in which employers frame their expectations of graduates is different from the language in which higher education tends to frame the desired outcomes of a university education. Only when a common language is adopted (or at least some way of translating from one language to the other) can any judgement be made on whether there is indeed a gap between what employers expect from, and what higher education considers valuable and appropriate for a university qualification. Extending this notion further, as 'travellers' between these two 'linguistic communities', graduates face the task of learning to communicate in both languages.

I want to suggest that the language of transferable skills may act as a common language, which may be used by higher education, students and graduates, and employers to enable each of these parties to communicate their respective valued goals, expectations and achievements. The pseudo-scientific quest for the precise definition and analysis of 'problem-solving' may thereby be replaced by the process of engagement between the various parties to higher education. The latter must be seen as being embedded in the wider social, economic and political context, and also significantly affecting for better or worse the lives of those who undergo the processes of education and assessment adopted. The option of trying to maintain a strong separation between higher education and the employment context is just not feasible.

This focus on the language of transferable skills links to what has been termed the 'linguistic turn' in the social sciences, particularly in recent scholarship in the discourse-analytic perspective (Potter and Wetherell, 1987; Shotter and Gergen, 1989; Burkitt, 1991; Edwards and Potter, 1992; Burman and Parker, 1993). Language is now seen not to be a neutral medium for representing underlying reality, but as an aspect of social practices through which humans actively construct what counts as social 'reality'. They do not do this under conditions of complete freedom since language only exists within a language community. Nevertheless, there is considerable scope for active construction of social reality through language use ). So, rather than pursuing some assumed social and psychological phenomena, such as 'competence' or 'transferable skills', attention should be focussed on the use to which these vocabulary items are put.

This should turn our focus more onto the contexts in which these terms are used. These are mainly situations in which some socially significant 'good' (eg a qualification or progression towards one, a job) is granted or withheld. Such circumstances are intrinsically contestable, and the social division of power (to grant or withhold) is unequal. Within a social context in which the discourse of merit and achievement dominate, where access to positions of high social standing and consequent rewards, the vocabulary of assessment, including terms such as 'competence' and 'skill' provides what counts as 'rational' justification for the structured division of such access. The award of a qualification is thus not made because an individual is competent or has certain transferable abilities; rather the attribution of competence or ability is the way in which such an award is rationally, ie discursively, justified. Saying that someone is 'competent' is a convention of warrant (Gergen, 1989) in the social processes by which power to award qualifications, jobs, etc is exercised.

Conventionally, academic qualifications are taken by higher education as the legitimate basis for advanced study. Despite the increased use of other modes of selection for entry to higher education, GCE 'A' levels remain the standard for admission. Admission to postgraduate study is mainly based on having a first degree, and so on. An individual may thus assert a claim for admission or progression within higher education on the basis of academic qualifications. This also applies, to a large extent, in respect of employment within academia. Although other criteria may also apply, an academic qualification in itself is conventionally taken as warranting the claim to be taken seriously as a candidate. If the situation were to be otherwise, higher education would undermine a key aspect of its own claim for legitimacy.

The situation is more complicated in employment outside of the higher education sector. There is a wide variety of 'graduate jobs', and this variety will increase as the number of graduates rises rapidly under current expansion to a 'mass higher education system'. One way of expressing a significant degree of similarity in such jobs is to refer to them as 'professional-managerial' occupations. This notion carries connotations of work which requires the application of knowledge and understanding which is broad in nature, and actions informed by critical-rational thought and a set of values developed over an extended period. It also connotes work which requires engagement and therefore communication with a variety of other people of differing backgrounds and with differing interests. The vocabulary of 'personal competence' or 'transferable skills' links with such connotations, but only where these are broadly interpreted.

Higher education may thus aim to promote a double warrant, legitimising claims for both for progression within academia and for entry to the professional-managerial occupational arena. These are more than programmes of study/ research or jobs and careers. Entry to these social arenas is also entry to the ways of life associated with them. They carry certain socially sanctioned rewards in terms of economic opportunities, status and reputation, influence, and the like. They also carry, of course, certain expectations and obligations from wider society. All of these can only be realised when individuals entering such arenas are able to sustain the basis for the claim of entry.

As the vocabulary of 'transferable skills' has provided employers, and their representatives such as CBI, with a language for challenging the perceived relevance of higher education qualifications, any response by higher education must incorporate such language. Profiling, and recording achievement, may play an essential role in this, but only if students/ graduates are central to the process. The focus needs to be on enabling students to assert their claims on access to the various social and economic spheres traditionally associated with high levels of learning, through articulating what they can do using the language conventionally accepted as warranting such claims. Of course, they may be called upon to justify and defend their claim to have certain desired abilities. The notion of a 'portfolio' seems to me to be more expressive of what is required. That is, the student will need to be able to put together, for particular circumstances, some way of presenting a justifiable claim; and this may vary according to different circumstances. What it is decidely not is an objective description of the student's abilities.

Under such a view, the notion of 'transfer' within the term 'transferable skills' also changes. The question of what is being 'transferred' changes from being concerned with the student, towards those who are judging (whether or not in formal academic assessment) the perceived performance and anticipated performance. In effect, they are transferring the warrant, endorsing as 'good' not only past or present performance but also the type of performance one might reasonably expect in future. The social convention for such endorsement is the use of terms normally placed under the heading of 'personal competences' or 'transferable skills'. This explains why the vocabulary for such terms is so varied and non-standard; it provides wide latitude in the use of the convention.

I am not arguing that it is all merely a matter of convention, and that there is no substantive difference between the abilities of different individuals, or of the same individual at different times or under different conditions. The point is that the positivist pursuit of what 'really' and 'objectively' constitutes such differences misses out on the socially produced and maintained rules or conventions on what counts as significant performance and significant difference.

"... the phenomena to be investigated in a psychological study are what the relevant vocabulary picks out and its use creates." (Harré, 1989)

There are, moreover, practical consequences of taking such an approach. First, as indicated above, the task which teaching staff (and here I would wish to include those involved in careers education) should address is that of ensuring that the vocabulary used to articulate and communicate what graduates can do is the vocabulary used by employers (and others, eg policy makers). Secondly, students must also be enabled to use such vocabulary about their own abilities, not only to give an account of themselves which enhances their opportunity for access to desirable employment and career prospects, but also to act in an 'accountable' manner when engaged in such employment (see Shotter, 1989). 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 personal competence 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 measure of ability.

Despite the offensive and relatively unsubstantiated criticisms of higher education emerging from certain parties who wish to promote some crude form of vocationalism, the reality is that institutions of higher education continue to attract more students than can be catered for. Employers continue to recruit graduates, and although graduate employment has risen during the recession the rate of unemployment amongst graduates is less than in the general population. Graduates still state that they perceive their education to have intrinsic value, to have provided them an opportunity for personal and cultural development irrespective of and separate from any benefit in terms of employment and career opportunities. The task facing those of us engaged in issues of competence and transferable skills is not that of wholesale change to a strongly socially embedded set of institutionalised practices. Rather, it is to work to enhance the ability of higher education to maintain its societal support under current and emerging political, economic and social conditions.


ATKINS, M., BEATTIE, J. and DOCKRELL, W. (1993) Assessment Issues in Higher Education, Employment Department Group, Sheffield

BURKITT, I. (1991) Social Selves, Sage, London

BURMAN, E. and PARKER, I. (eds.) (1993) Discourse Analytic Research, Routledge, London

EDWARDS, D. and POTTER, J. (1992) Discourse Psychology, Sage, London

GERGEN, K. (1989) "Warranting Voice and the Elaboration of the Self", in Shotter and Gergen, 1989

HARRE, R. (1989) "Language Games and Texts of Identity", in Shotter and Gergen (eds) Texts of Identity

NAB/ UGC (1984) Transferable Personal Skills in Employment: The Contribution of Higher Education, London: National Advisory Board for Public Sector Higher Education/ University Grants Council

POTTER, J. and WETHERELL, M. (1987) Discourse and Social Psychology, Sage, London

SHOTTER, J. (1989) "Social Accountability", in Shotter and Gergen, Texts of Identity, Sage,

SHOTTER, J. and GERGEN, K. (eds.) (1989) Texts of Identity, Sage, London


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