In this recently published paper in the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Leesa Wheelahan and her colleagues take a hard look at an obsession with skills in post-secondary education and in the policy discourse.

The paper has two aims: (1) “to analyse the nature of 21st century skills as the latest incarnation of the skills discourse” and (2) that conceptions about skills have become too separated from the contexts in which they are developed and used.

The development of the skills discourse

Leesa and colleagues point to the case of Canada, where tertiary education attainment is very high (i.e. they get the credentials), yet “actual skills attainment is underwhelming.” Much of the discussion in the paper centres around the rise of neo-liberalism and its associated market-oriented reform policies. This results, the authors suggest, in the role and purpose of post-secondary education becoming “overwhelmingly economic”. In this scenario, individuals, enterprises, and states pursue their self-interest through markets and all these groups are seen to be “advantaged by wise investments in human capital.” However, dangers in this approach include overqualification and skills wastage. There is also the danger that education is seen too much as one of the key ways of providing a social safety net and that lifelong learning for individuals shifts from being a ‘right’ to a ‘duty’.

Moving from generic or employability skills to 21st century ones

There has long been a debate about the use of competency-based education and its limitations, particularly in relation to describing requisite knowledge and skills. Leesa and her colleagues point out that:

“[where] competency-based education [CBE] has had the most impact is vocational education because it is more tightly tied to work and buffeted by powerful external constituencies such as employer bodies and unions.”

And, as a consequence:

“the language of so-called generic skills and employability skills has increasingly saturated curriculum in vocational education, based on the idea that qualifications need to include generic or transferable skills for employment and the specific competencies required to perform particular tasks and roles in the workplace.”

While universities have largely avoided this focus on CBE, their approaches to teaching and learning have evolved to promote the development of ‘graduate attributes’, “premised on the notion that graduates need a suite of transferable skills and attributes for the labour market” often by being seen to meet the requirements of professional standards developed and promoted by external bodies.

This is where generic and employability skills come in and promoted notions of education as a preparation for work. However, as the paper maintains, these generic skills like problem solving are, in fact, context and discipline specific. The same is the case for 21st Century skills although they are often written about “in apparently neutral terms, based on a presumed shared understanding of what these skills are, the presumption that they can be defined, assessed and measured and the presumption they are a desirable policy goal.”

This notion leads, it might be argued, to a fetish about ‘skills’ rather than seeing things more comprehensively using a broadly conceived occupational one requiring the “deep engagement with the specific knowledge and skills required for specific occupations.” The danger is that skills policies are seen as a way to ‘fix’ education so that it:

“supplies the right skills by tying it ever tighter to the ‘demands’ of the labour market and employers. This [as the authors point out] takes for granted that the ‘demands’ from employers are coherent and well formulated, and that individuals will be able to use the skills they have in the workplace.”

This may not be the case in countries like Australia with a liberal market economy where there can be a looser relationship between qualifications and jobs than in coordinated market economies such as Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.

So, the paper concludes that:

“human capital theory has failed to deliver its promise of high skilled jobs in a high skilled economy, because ‘The fundamental problem is not that there is a shortage of the relevant skills that employers demand but that there is a lack of good-quality jobs’. It also builds on the work of [those] who argue that education is beset by two problems: … ‘On the one hand education is positioned ambitiously as a key solution to economic problems; on the other hand, it is undermined – it is not seen as a distinctive and important social activity with its own problems’ … The result is that skills policies are unable to solve the problems of the economy and they distort education and its potential to support human flourishing.”