Assessing competences could equip graduates for an uncertain post-Covid future

Instead of pivoting towards training, universities should seek to instil and assess competences, says Jenny Louise Lawrence.

Covid-19 has reshaped professional practice across public and private sectors. In HE it has transformed pedagogic practice, at the same time it has thrown many institutions’ education strategies into irrelevance.

Before Covid-19 higher education was preoccupied with the fourth industrial revolution, universities’ role in ensuring graduate preparedness for a highly technical graduate employment market as defined by the government’s Industrial Strategy, and how to maintain the integrity of higher learning in the marketised, neoliberal model imposed upon the academy.

Throughout the lively discourse that surrounds the fourth industrial revolution is the recognition that the pace of change, in technological developments and the construction of knowledge, will be breathtaking. We fretted the pace would outstrip the glacial crawl of curriculum reform. We worried that even if we could speculate on new knowledge, or anticipate the technical skills necessary to satisfy future graduate jobs market, by the time programmes are designed, delivered, and degrees awarded, those carefully-defined skills are obsolete; that specific knowledge outdated.

Then Covid-19 changed everything.

We have moved into a new age of compassionate pedagogies, where policy wonks, educational developers and academic staff unite in the will to learn how to assure students can achieve to the best of their ability, irrespective of difficult circumstances. We have learned how to exercise compassionate professionalism, where we forgive our colleagues (and even harder – our own) slips, and we have embraced ongoing professional development to enable our new ways of (remote, online) working. If we take anything from Covid-19 let it be just how agile the sector can be when needs must.

The worlds of work and of higher education seem unrecognisable compared to what went before. As governments struggle to establish safe, effective and ethical lockdown-exit plans we can only recognise we just don’t know how our world will continue to change, and then change again. This leaves us to riff on a question posed by Perfect And Procter’s (pre-Covid 19) Wonkhe blog How can we prepare graduates for jobs that don’t yet exist? or, rather, a post Covid-19 world we cannot yet imagine?

Covid-19 and the future

Covid-19 has shown us the pace and scale of global change, the results of which cannot always be anticipated. It seems then, that chasing graduate employability through specific skills training is not only reductive, it is counter-productive. Rather than Advance HE exploring how universities can respond to the UK government’s industrial strategy or the World Economic Forum researching what skills the future jobs market will require, we should expand HE’s ambition.

We must ask ourselves how to equip our graduates for a completely unknowable future. How can we ensure graduates recognise when and understand how to update their skill set and knowledge base to sustain the currency of their graduate abilities? How can we equip graduates for the inevitable stresses and strains of uncertain professional, social and private life? And, how can we give them the confidence to navigate all this ethically? Consider how different the Covid-19 landscape might be if social good rather than the bottom line were the driving force behind decision making at the most senior national levels.

Universities are in the business of education, rather than training. Training equips us to follow a given process; through an education we learn how to do something and why it is done that way. The “higher” of higher education goes further – it establishes the critical and independent thinking necessary to interrogate how and why something is done and imagine if it can, or should, be done differently. It is the HE sector’s responsibility to prepare graduates to address the grand challenges of their unknowable futures ethically.

Competence-based higher education

The answer to the questions posed lies in competence-based HE. To be competent is to have the necessary knowledge, experience and self-awareness to do something successfully. These three components can be nuanced to future proof the relevance of programmes of study, and which, in our current context, seem absolutely central to graduate success and societal need:

Knowledge management is the ability to effectively source and assess the integrity/rigour of then communicate information. It includes the legal and ethical issues inherent to accessing and sharing data. This is crucial as knowledge evolves at increasing speed, and as the overwhelming number of competing discourses jostle for dominance. We are in a context where the ability to filter out the fake news from valid information will literally save lives, livelihoods and whole communities.

Disciplinary and professional experience is the practice of applying knowledge and understanding borne from study or personal experience to a given task. This is an effective pedagogic method that benefits student learning but may also have meaningful impact for society as graduates apply disciplinary expertise to live briefs off campus. This could be the foundation to universities maintaining relevance and establishing themselves as central to community survival post Covid-19.

Consider for a moment these recent examples: Engineers at The University of Hull innovating to produce hundreds of thousands of PPE face-shields for the NHS; Arts at The University of Sheffield working toward community wellbeing in the wide ranging project Storying Sheffield: telling untold tales, and the power of cross-disciplinary collaboration at Imperial College London’s Covid-19 response team whose findings ensured that strategic planning for this current crisis has rigour and integrity.

Self awareness is necessary for recognising when it is time to update disciplinary or professional knowledge according to personal, professional and societal need. It is the seat of self-directed, lifelong-learning – crucial to navigating the unexpected, as well as fast changing personal and professional lives. It is through self-awareness that the difficult question of why we are doing something, and how and if it should be done can be asked. Through practised reflection – which is time consuming and often deeply uncomfortable – we can find confidence to make difficult decisions, strength to commit to challenging unethical or brute behaviours and resolve to embrace personal stretch.

Competence-based HE must be taught in practice and assessed in application (Lawrence et al, 2020) and as such encourages students to recognise their graduate potential and builds a graduate (work) force with the necessary attributes to address a post Covid-19 world – a world we cannot yet imagine. It has the potential to set up HE as central to UNESCO’s vision of education as a “global common good” where the challenges facing our communities, local regions and nations are addressed in partnership, with critical care, compassion and integrity.

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