HE, ESD and the development of soft skills

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

The Times Higher has a story this week on the effect that universities have on the development of, so-called, soft skills: citizenship, innovation, developing personal values, etc.  The answer, in short is not a lot compared to the development of so-called, hard skills: independent learning, and critical and analytical thinking skills.

The THE says that the Higher Education Academy’s UK Engagement Survey (based on North America’s National Survey of Student Engagement) draws on the responses of more than 24,000 UK undergraduates, and is the first nationwide attempt to measure “learning gain” in British universities.  Unsurprisingly (given degree contents), in general terms, students studying STEM-based subjects reported significantly higher gains in hard skills than in soft skills, while those following arts and humanities courses perceived significantly lower levels of hard skill development than their counterparts in other subject areas.  "Significantly", the THE notes,

"... although the responses of students in different years indicated progressive development of hard skills over the course of a three-year degree, no such pattern was evident in soft skills: the responses of third-year students were almost identical to those of first years in most subject areas."

The devil is, of course, in the fine detail.

All this may well come as an initial disappointment to supporters of the ESD movement which has long seen the acquisition of such skills at the heart of its claims to effectiveness.  However, as post-1992 institutions, where most of the emphasis on ESD will be found, seem to be better than pre-1992 institutions at soft-skill development, this holds out the tantalising hope that it's the focus on ESD that makes the difference.

Whilst I hear that Paddy Power is offering long odd against this, I'll be interested to see what NUS has to say about this in the light of its own surveys of students over the last 5 years.

Meanwhile, there's a worry about this hard-soft duality and whether it holds much water.  There's a chart on the THE webpage – sadly, I lack the (hard-ish?) skill to copy it here – that calls into question just how soft some of these soft-skills really are; not to mention how effectively students are able to differentiate at all reliably between their degree course experience, and their "overall" experience of university life.  Methodologically, speaking, I worry more about the first than the second.



Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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