Education Blog: Graduate Attributes for 2017 and beyond

2016-04-14-08-53-52Over the last few days I have been reflecting on the need to review the graduates attributes that are at the centre of the Citizen Scholar program that I have been developing with colleagues over the last few years. The question is whether universities have the ability to continue to evolve at the pace required to ensure the needs of our students and society is met.

It was with this in mind that I came to read a speech by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, at the TEQSA conference titled Red Tape or Gift Wrap: Regulation for exceptional tertiary institutions. I must say I am a big fan of the Chief Scientist and very much like listening to what he has to say.

In the speech, Dr Finkel reminds us that regulation should not be something we should fear, but if established correctly, can set an environment of engagement, collaboration as well as competition.

It all sounds straightforward but as someone involved in implementing some of the TEQSA requirements, it is always easy to simply look at regulation as a burden.

(At this point I should disclose I am on the TEQSA panel of experts.)

The question is has TEQSA got it right? Is the regulation written in a way that will allow universities to respond to the challenges that we are currently facing which require innovation, quick response to emerging needs and creativity? Or do they act to stifle these?

I am not sure – there are some positive signs and some dimensions of the requirements I am less confident about.

Universities must be nimble in the contemporary environment – not only with the delivery, but also with our curriculum.

This takes me to a group of articles focussing on ‘what employers want from graduates (which include a 2014 article by Forbes, a 2015 article by National Association of Colleges and Employers and the recent report by Foundation of Young Australians titled The 7 new job families to help young people navigate the new work order (2016)).

If you go through the dozens of articles on this topic, there continues to emerge a series of important themes regarding the types of skills we need to ensure that our graduates and postgraduate develop.

If we group or place them under a series of thematic assemblages, we can see some very clear themes emerge that begin to build the types of graduates attributes required for 2017 and beyond. Here are six key assemblages of attributes I have established:

  1. Understanding Culture

One key group of attributes repeated emerge around working in groups and working across cultures. While ‘team work’ emerges repeatedly and is fundamental, I think we need to look beyond such specific attributes to a more general assemblage of skills focussed on understanding the everyday culture of the environment we work and live in. It is everyday interactions that shape our culture and the responses to these can establish an environment in which people can thrive.

The focus on ‘STEM’ over the last few years has seen a tendency to ignore the humanities. But it is the humanities that give students the ability to understand the social context they work and live in – and the ability to adapt, adopt and work across different contexts.

  1. New literacies including data literacy

There was a time when literacy meant reading, writing and arithmetic – but today it means working with mass data and information. We have moved from a time of information scarcity to information abundance – and it is fundamental that a multi-dimensional approach to literacy be adopted.

This is not simply about humanities students learning to work with data and computer languages, but also STEM students having the ability to deeply and critically engage with a variety of media.

  1. Communication

Both written and spoke communication are essential no matter what career is being pursued. Fundamental is the ability to understand the audience being communicated to and being prepared to alter the message, delivery and tone to meet the audience needs.

  1. Resilience and mistakibility

One of the major challenges I have found as an educator is encouraging students to take risks. Student’s focus on grades and exam scores – something they are trained to do from their earliest days at school. What we need are students who are willing to take risks and make mistakes – learning from these mistakes and building the resilience to enter a world that will be challenging.

The problem is that the curriculum is focussed on ensuring minimal ‘grade point average’ – something that students must also excel in if they are to obtain a scholarship. The result is that students are risk averse and fear failure rather than seeing it as an opportunity to learn. The challenge for us as educators is to build this type of mistakability into learning outcomes and graduate attributes

  1. Problem definition

When designing and establishing the award winning Academy program at Western Sydney University, I asked a senior manager at one of the large consultancies while doing my research what would make the ‘ideal graduate’? His response was insightful: ‘I want them to pick up the phone and ask the right question’.

What he is describing here is problem definition: the ability to identify and isolate the problem that is to be solved. Fundamental to this is appropriate critical thinking, research training, research literacy and research skills.

  1. Design and Creativity

The final attribute assemblage I will discuss here is a combination of people centred design combined with creativity and innovation. That is, creative and innovative solutions must have people at their centre. Creativity and innovation without a focus on placing people squarely in the centre of the challenge will wield results that may be imaginative, but will not solve anything.

There are other such assemblages but I think these establish the attributes we need to ensure our students have into the future.

TEQSA guidelines must ensure these are the type of skills and knowledge we can promote – rather than be used as an added layer of bureaucracy.

Note: In writing this blog, I would like to acknowledge my collaborator Dr David Hornsby.

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One Response to Education Blog: Graduate Attributes for 2017 and beyond

  1. Hi James,

    You might be interested to see Christian’s analysis of the Higher Education Workforce of the Future Report by the Australian Higher Education Industrial Association and PricewaterhouseCoopers. (Christian was the guy at TASA2016 asking for Macbook charger.) The AHEIA/PwC report outlines a strategy which Christian claims is in the forefront of the minds of university strategic planners and upper management. The report focuses on the values and attributes that a future academic workforce will need to have (according to AHEIA/PwC) in order to thrive in the present internationalised HE climate. It provides a strategic context to the assemblage of attributes that you mention above and also reminds us that university managers have a stake in what kind of graduates they produce (i.e. in terms of their future workforce). You can check out Christian’s blog and find a link to the report via:

    https://sociyology.wordpress.com/

    I like many of the attributes that you’ve outlined above and especially feel that the sector needs to find a way to promote what you describe as “resilience and mistakibility”. Our “best” graduates (and especially those offered to advance into the academic ranks) are often students who demonstrate persistently high performance. If Bourdieu has left any mark on our collective sociological imagination, it should be a suspicion towards what kind of class/homosocial outcomes such a system entails. To foster resilience in the manner you suggest would require a revised reward allocation system that recognises the ability of students to adapt to new challenges and a potential to thrive, rather than to exercise their cultural capital. I’m not denying that many encultured students work hard, but rather that a system that supports resilience would require the recognition of merit as a function of effort and opportunity, rather than a standardised measurement of outcome. What such recognition would look like is a trickier issue, given the tendency of bureaucracies to standardise contextual factors that aren’t necessarily comparable.

    Thanks for your thoughts; it’s interesting to read the thinking of someone in a position to advise TEQSA. It was a pleasure to meet you at this year’s TASA conference.

    All the best,
    Fabian.

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