#alt-ac · #post-ac · academic reorganization · translation

On the Skills Bind

At the monthly meeting of our graduate program directors this morning, the Dean of Graduate Studies reported back from the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies annual conference that took place last week. One of the key talking points was the plenary talk, “The Roles, State, and Impact of Post-Secondary Education in Canada—Discussion on the Preliminary Research Findings of the Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education in Canada” by Carl Amrhein and Daniel Munro. Both are affiliated with the Conference Board of Canada and involved in the overview of post-secondary education in Canada being undertaken by the Board at the federal government’s request. The overview is happening under the aegis of the Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education (SPSE), and is intended to “be a major five-year initiative that will examine the advanced skills and education challenges facing Canada today.” And what did these two people, working at the Centre for Skills, reporting on “advanced skills,” have to say?

This: we need to stop talking about post-secondary education in terms of skills.

It’s not a surprise, really. The government is obsessed with the so called “skills gaps” and its economic repercussions. How real that gap or its repercussions are is still up for major debate. In the government’s focus on slotting people into specific and well-defined roles, on productivity, on economic growth, skills have become the obvious focus of the discussion of higher education. And that is, as we all probably already recognize, a major problem. It certainly represents a significant disconnect between what the university is supposed to be doing–educating–and what the government wants it to be doing–training. As Max Blouw from the Council of Ontario Universities convincingly argues, universities should educate, employers should train. We need people with more than skills. We need people who can think, empathize, analyze, and be flexible enough to walk the meandering career path that is now the norm.

As universities like mine undergo major prioritization reviews, this skills focus takes on increased significance. What useful skills does a Master’s degree in Gender Studies provide, the skills-focused wonder? What does a Humanities PhD bring to the table, and to the economy? Why should we keep finding these programs, the logic goes? And in many places, as the logic goes, so do these programs. So do major sources of support for all those fields that don’t provide obvious skills, the arts and humanities foremost. And so, Munro argued, we need to change the conversation, to talk even louder (for talk we do) about all of the benefits of a university education that can’t be categorized under the rubric of “skills.”

And yet.

For graduate education, I can’t dismiss the focus on skills so easily. Major surveys by CAGS, by HECQO, by graduate bodies internationally, demonstrate a real (or at least a perceived) need for transferable skills training for graduate students aiming for the #alt- and the #post-ac. If the perceived lack of skills hurts undergraduates as they enter the job market, it’s about ninety times worse for PhDs. So even as my Dean related the gist of the CAGS keynote, she also announced that the position for a graduate professional and transferable skills coordinator, the one I argued we needed when I piloted the role and developed policy last year, is in the process of being created. I’m really happy that the every student at the university will now have access to the professional development they need, that not only can they practice transferable skills, but that they can put them on their resumes and demonstrate to employers that they have them.

But, even without additional training, we already have skills. We can write, speak, teach, plan, coordinate, budget, analyze, synthesize, research, use social media. And we have so much more than skills. What we need, more than skills training, is the ability to talk about what we do as graduate students and as PhDs in terms that make sense to everyone in the middle of this skills conversation. So yes, Munro is right. We need to change the subject. But as we do that, we also need to know how to speak the language. And how to do both–how to get to our ultimate goal of living in a world that recognizes what a university education does for people, and what those people can do for, and in, the world–is a challenge I’m not quite sure how to face.

One thought on “On the Skills Bind

  1. For a long long long time, most academic training has focused on the transmission of competence in content areas. In mastering the content, students were–on the side–developing those valued skills of critical reading, critical writing, and critical thinking. It had to be on teh side, because it wasn't explicitly taught: “I can't teach writing, I have too much content to cover! That's why they write essays!”

    We coasted a lot on the prior cultural, social, and intellectual competence of students: to be habitual readers, to understand the social capital that accrues to knowing history and literature, to coming from a background where words and ideas are at the centre of family life.

    Well guess what? As our students ceased to be drawn only from the elite, it's become impossible to just assume that they're already readers and writers and thinkers, or that they're already steeped in the Life of The Mind, big picture style. It's not their fault they weren't born with a book of poetry and a blue editing pencil in their hands. It's our fault for totally failing to teach them.

    Instead of a finishing school for the privileged, university education ought to really educate: the content is obviously very important, but we need to actually TEACH and flag and discuss those skills that our best (read, mostly already way out in front of the pack, reading and writing wise when they started) students manifest, that we hold out as what humanities degree holders should look like.

    A lot of this debate, I think, comes down to class. And if our students don't get those skills we say we offer, and if they don't understand the link between the early novel and a productive and remunerative career, it's not their fault. It's ours.


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