The idea of the graduate attribute

Posted in: News and Updates, Talks and Presentations

I am recently returned from an HEA policy think tank on Graduate attributes and the green economy. This is the two-page stimulus paper I drafted for the event:

The idea of the graduate attribute

This is appealing, seductive almost, and inevitably contested. Put simply, graduate attributes comprise an aspirational list of knowledge, skills and values that an institution (most usually a university) puts forward as a statement of intent: that at the end of their studies, all its graduates, irrespective of background, interests, and degree taken, will possess and be able to live out in the wider world these knowledge, skills and values through their work, and also through their lives. In this way, universities attempt to show that, despite the necessary narrowness of a formal tertiary programme of study, there is also breadth to the experience of the university itself. Thus, it is a promise made to society more widely, to employers more narrowly, and to the student in particular, and can look like an aspect of institutional corporate social responsibility.  See, for example, Bowden et al. (2000) Generic capabilities of Australian Technology Network (ATN) university graduates.

Purposes and implications

In addition to the aspirational purpose set out above, there are at least three other reasons why an institution might go down the graduate attribute route: to …

  1. market the institution’s qualities, distinctiveness and value to students and society;
  2. comply with government or regulator demands; and/or
  3. steer curriculum design and teaching, and other learning experience, in particular ways.

The first of these seems inevitable, and is not necessary an ignoble quest, unless it is the only reason for action. The second is controversial wherever it exists in a free society. The third may be controversial or very appealing, or both, depending on your perspective. Clearly, for internal or external pressure groups, it may well be seen as potentially a powerful tool for change, offering, as it does, some guarantee that all students will have exposure to particular ideas and values, whether as part of their formal studies or through complementary experience. For anyone interested in promoting Education for Sustainable Development [ESD], for example, this third purpose would seem to be of the essence.

Similarly, for the institution itself, it also offers a means of significant change, for example, by requiring interdisciplinary study or a focus on global social justice issues. Further, the act of establishing a student entitlement at the whole institution level, enshrining it into statute, not only acts to ensure that senior leaders own the idea, but means that it is the institution itself which exerts the downward pressure on faculties, departments and degrees to comply and change. Inevitably, if an institution is to go down such a curriculum-focused attribute route in order to affect significant (and perhaps even systemic) change, this will require investment if it going to be a development whose values are widely shared across the institution.

Melbourne, for example

Although there are now many examples of universities adopting graduate attributes, those associated with the University of Melbourne remain prominent, and are associated with what the university calls the ‘Melbourne model’, which is an example of the kind of curriculum-focused attribute described above, and which has now evolved into ‘Growing Esteem’ with its triple helix of research, learning and teaching, and external engagement.  The Melbourne Experience enables graduates to become:

Academically excellent:

  • have a strong sense of intellectual integrity and the ethics of scholarship
  • have in-depth knowledge of their specialist discipline(s)
  • reach a high level of achievement in writing, generic research activities, problem-solving and communication
  • be critical and creative thinkers, with an aptitude for continued self-directed learning
  • be adept at learning in a range of ways, including through information and communication technologies

Knowledgeable across disciplines:

  • examine critically, synthesise and evaluate knowledge across a broad range of disciplines
  • expand their analytical and cognitive skills through learning experiences in diverse subjects
  • have the capacity to participate fully in collaborative learning and to confront unfamiliar problems
  • have a set of flexible and transferable skills for different types of employment

Leaders in communities:

  • initiate and implement constructive change in their communities, including professions and workplaces
  • have excellent interpersonal and decision-making skills, including an awareness of personal strengths and limitations
  • mentor future generations of learners
  • engage in meaningful public discourse, with a profound awareness of community needs

Attuned to cultural diversity:

  • value different cultures
  • be well-informed citizens able to contribute to their communities wherever they choose to live and work
  • have an understanding of the social and cultural diversity in our community
  • respect indigenous knowledge, cultures and values

Active global citizens:

  • accept social and civic responsibilities
  • be advocates for improving the sustainability of the environment
  • have a broad global understanding, with a high regard for human rights, equity and ethics

The strength of this approach would seem to lie in …

  1. its grounding within the graduate’s own discipline that requires them to “expand … analytical and cognitive skills”, and to develop “skills for different types of employment”.
  2. the focus on both culture and community, and their necessary interconnection.
  3. an explicit identification of global issues which require being “advocates for improving the sustainability of the environment”, and having “a broad global understanding, with a high regard for human rights, equity and ethics”.

Attributes and the economy – some questions

1. Are the Melbourne attributes appropriate for supporting the green economy, or is a sharper and more explicit focus needed? Put another way: will such nurturing result from this kind of approach despite its breadth? Or will it only come about because of its breadth?

2. Will graduate attribute-informed curriculum reform likely result in better university-business partnerships, more effective accreditation outcomes, and improved graduate employment?

3. To what extent do university curricula have to be reforming before broadly-based graduate attributes can be adopted? Or will graduate attributes need to be taken seriously before curricula can be reformed effectively? And do all such attributes need formal assessment?

4. Are graduate attributes a good way of gaining university-wide acceptance of curriculum reform? If so, how might the HEA support a sector-wide exploration of graduate attributes?


Examples of UK universities going down the attribute include: Aberdeen Edinburgh Southampton Aberdeen Keele Leeds Queen Mary London Metropolitan and Sheffield ... and then there's Sydney.

Posted in: News and Updates, Talks and Presentations


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response