Dr. Kate Daubney has worked in education for over 30 years and in career education and employability development for over 20 years. She has run two university careers services and a federation of university careers services in the UK and developed impactful approaches for careers professionals working in schools. Following on from her original academic career as a film musicologist, Kate is now a practice-led researcher in employability and curriculum and in career learning gain. Her innovations in employability and curriculum have led her to work with academics, careers services, and employers in three main areas: firstly, to enable more effective development of transferable skills and attributes through the curriculum; secondly, to create taxonomies of transferable skills to achieve that development in the academic curriculum; and thirdly, to understand how those skills and attributes support effective career decision-making progression for students and graduates, particularly in the context of a fluid and uncertain future of work. She has published peer-reviewed research and a book on these topics and regularly speaks at global conferences. Kate is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a Member of the Board governing Careers Wales, and an Advisory Board Member for Practera, a global provider of experiential learning. Kate now works full-time as a freelance consultant, advising universities and organisations around the world on education, employability, and careers education strategies.
Many universities have responded to conversations about the skills needed for the future by creating their own lists of ‘graduate skills’. Drawing on my research and practice in surfacing the transferable skills that are innate to all academic subjects, and my experience of working with universities around the world to create their own skills language, here are 7 top tips that will help you and your institution to create a language of transferable skills.
1. Recognise and include all your stakeholders.
It would be easy to assume that employers are the most important stakeholders in making sure that graduates have a good range of transferable skills to enter the workplace. But in practice, everyone in your university is a stakeholder in this conversation. Students need to be able to recognise the transferable skills as something they develop, apply, and need. Academics need to be able to see that the transferable skills innate to their individual subjects are exactly the same as the ones that employers are seeking, without feeling that their educational mission is compromised. Colleagues delivering co-curricular and extra-curricular provision need to be able to make the connection to their activities. And institutional leadership needs to be able to deploy skills language through meaningful strategy. So, when you start a conversation about transferable skills, make sure everyone is involved…
2…because we all want the same thing.
We all want students to love their degree and get the maximum value out of it in the longer term, no matter what they study, what jobs they choose, or what paths their careers ultimately take. Enabling all your stakeholders to engage positively with conversations about transferable skills means helping them to recognise that alongside the core knowledge base of every degree programme, students are also developing transferable skills that are innate to their subjects. This enables students to have the confidence that their education has value, whether their future employment is strongly aligned with their subject knowledge or not. That is key to enabling students to be able to respond to an uncertain future of work and is a powerful narrative to keep them engaged in education.
3. Decide how you want to use the language before you create it.
Making it structurally unavoidable for students to develop skills through curriculum is the most inclusive approach, but it can feel overwhelming for academics to revisit their curriculum through this lens, particularly if they don’t know where the language of those skills is coming from. It may seem counterintuitive, but it helps to agree with your educators before you create your language on how those skills will be surfaced to students. Will learning outcomes be rewritten to use a richer language of skills? Will modules need aligning to different skills? Will teaching and learning be reframed around a more intentional reference to skill development? Having positive conversations about pedagogy and curriculum reduces the sense that it’s all just a process to be implemented.
4. Determine the starting point for creating your language.
Put simply, most languages or taxonomies of transferable skills either start from a ‘top 10’ type list, or they emerge from each individual subject area. Top 10 lists can be easily derived from an institutional mission statement or even a public list like the World Economic Forum, depending on the balance between personalising the list to the institution or making it feel globally relevant. By contrast, skills language that emerges from individual subject areas feels highly specific to the subject or groups of subjects. For example, if we strip away the knowledge specialisms, subjects like design, physics, and environmental science all focus on skillsets such as defining and solving problems and working with evidence, while subjects within the humanities often focus on skills of developing and applying perspectives and analysing and constructing narratives. Neither approach to finding the language of skills is better than the other, and in fact, engaging stakeholders to think about different sources is a really productive way to start generating that language.
5. Find the sweet spot.
Top 10 lists can feel easy to use and might be easily derived from public sources, but they also run the risk of being seen as oversimplified and reductive. Likewise, if every subject in a university comes up with its own language of skills, you can end up with a huge number of ways to describe the same skills, which is confusing for everyone. What’s more, telling anyone that there are 50 or 60 communication skills to develop and apply will quickly disengage them from thinking about skills at all! So, you are aiming to provide sufficient nuance in your skills language for academics to feel confident that it is relevant to their subject, while not providing so much detail that students find it unusable, unrecognisable, or overwhelming. In practice, the language of the workplace and academic study do share a certain degree of complexity in the language of skills, so finding that sweet spot is reasonable and achievable.
6. Self-awareness is EVERYTHING!
Even the most future-proof language of transferable skills will fail to be useful to students if they don’t know they are actually developing those skills. Learning outcomes are often framed around knowledge gain rather than skill development which can be a factor. And even if we enrich our learning outcomes with a far more diverse language of transferable skills, there is no guarantee that students will actually realise that they are developing those skills through the study of the subject and not just applying them in their assessments. So, using every possible opportunity through teaching and learning to signpost to students the different skills they are developing and applying should become a companion to the implementation of any language of skills. Embedding reflection in learning is core to making that approach impactful, and it enhances assessment too.
7. Remember that transferable skills are a celebration of the value of education!
Enabling students to recognise that they are developing transferable skills through their academic study is not just about employment. It’s also about celebrating the richness of every subject and its enduring value. As academics, the discovery and dissemination of knowledge are core to our identity, and it can be difficult if we feel we are being asked to give that up in some way. Surfacing the innate transferable skills developed in every subject means we don’t have to give up that core role that knowledge plays in our professional identities, and it also gives us new ways to make connections within and across disciplines. The curriculum remains rigorous and intact, and students graduate knowing more about the value they can draw from that curriculum, whatever their future working lives might be.