Alan Harrison — Skills, competencies and credentials: The stairway to heaven?

Longer ago than I care to remember, I went to a presentation given by Norm Wagner, who was at the time the president of the Corporate Higher Education Forum, after 10 years as president of the University of Calgary. Wagner talked about what employers look for when they interview students who had successfully completed undergraduate degrees. It was, he said, skills that prospective employers cared about, not knowledge. Content, he asserted, was simply a vehicle for skill development.

What Wagner said made eminent sense to me at the time, but if anyone doubted him then, they shouldn’t today. The evidence is there for all to see. When I was the social sciences dean at McMaster, we collected information on jobs held by past students who had recently graduated from undergraduate programs offered by the academic units in the faculty. I provided the faculty’s department chairs with a list of the respondents’ jobs, told each of them how many respondents came from their unit, and asked them to pick their students’ jobs from the list. They couldn’t do it. Click here to see a much more sophisticated data set that demonstrates why they failed, and why, therefore, universities should stop confining their worship to the shrine of content.

Universities say they understand the importance of skill development. If they do, why do they persist in providing credentials and transcripts that focus only on what graduating students know? This is the starting point for Skills, Competencies and Credentials, a paper that I authored and that was published by HEQCO.

Because content remains king in universities, employers are forced to infer students’ competencies. In response, employers are increasingly conducting their own tests to replace inferences with facts. If the universities don’t soon wake up, employers will join colleges in doing what universities have failed to do.

Every university president worth his or her salt frequently claims students are trained in skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving. If this is true, where’s the proof? A good start would be to assess a student’s competencies, and include the results on credentials and transcripts.

This still raises the question of how to undertake the assessment. The universities and colleges in HEQCO’s Learning Outcomes Assessment Consortium have made a start, but no Ontario university has yet to systematically map the curriculums to competencies, embed the competency assessment within the course and program assessment, and provide graduating students and employers with information on students’ competency levels.

Ironically, competency assessment of a type was alive and well in the late 14th century. A paper by Ben Wilbrink describes how students were required to reach the point where they “knew” (which is to say could recite) religious texts, with the incentive of being “more likely after one’s death to be admitted to heaven.”

Believers will, I hope, forgive me if I say that competency assessment is even more important today.

After completing a five-year term as provost and vice-principal (academic) at Queen’s University, Alan Harrison spent 12 months of administrative leave as a fellow at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO).

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