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Examining the Graduate Attribute agenda in Australian universities: A review of (continuing) problems and pitfalls

Graduate attributes refer to an amalgamation of cognitive, personal, interpersonal and social skills, abilities and qualities that students are expected to develop and apply during and after their degree programme. They have been widely adopted
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  1   THIS IS A PRE-PUBLICATION VERSION. FOR THE FINAL PUBLISHED VERSION, PLEASE CONSULT THE JOURNAL,  Learning  and Teaching: The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences , vol. 11, issue 3, pages 49-62. ======================================================================= Examining the Graduate Attribute agenda in Australian universities: A review of (continuing) problems and pitfalls Author:  Peta S. Cook Abstract Graduate attributes refer to an amalgamation of cognitive, personal, interpersonal and social skills, abilities and qualities that students are expected to develop and apply during and after their degree programme. They have been widely adopted across higher education in Australia and internationally. In this article, I review some of the continuing problems of graduate attributes in the Australian higher education sector some twenty years after their introduction, including the concepts of employability and work-readiness; the processes of mapping and resourcing; and whether graduate attributes are generic. This examination foregrounds the ongoing pitfalls of graduate attributes in relation to their purpose, contextualisation and implementation. While there remains potential positive student and institutional outcomes from graduate attributes, the continuing problems of resourcing and the diversity of roles and purposes that universities serve for students and communities, are being overlooked. Keywords:  employability, generic skills, graduate attributes, graduate capabilities, graduate qualities, learning outcomes Internationally, the higher education sector has been undergoing extensive change. In Australia, this has been influenced by concerns from the federal government, professional organisations and potential employers over graduate skills, the employability of graduates and the quality of provision (Bennett et al. 1999; Green et al. 2009) 1 . To answer such concerns, graduate attributes have become crucial (Hughes and Barrie 2010). Graduate attributes are a broad range of generic skills that students are expected to acquire and apply during and following their university studies 2 . These have been driven ‘to meet the demands of external stakeholders’ (Al-Mahmood and Gruba 2007: 171) through ‘aligning the goals of business, government and education’ (Hill et al. 2016: 155). There has been a lack of consensus, however, on the nature of core graduate skills (see Barrie 2006; Bennett et al. 1999; Clanchy and Ballard 1995; Hill et al. 2016). This is partially evidenced by the wide variety of terminology used in the Australian higher sector to refer to graduate attributes, which include graduate (or generic) capabilities, graduate identity, graduate qualities, graduate quality statements, graduate  2   learning outcomes, generic attributes, and educational principles. While well established in Australia, the graduate attributes agenda has also gained international momentum through their embedding in higher education skills agendas and quality frameworks in Scotland, England, New Zealand, and Europe (Hill et al. 2016). While there has been a lack of consensus on graduate attributes, however, they can broadly be understood as: the qualities, skills and understandings a university community agrees its students should develop during their time with the institution. These attributes include, but go beyond, the disciplinary expertise or technical knowledge that has traditionally formed the core of most university courses. They are qualities that also prepare graduates as agents for social good in an unknown future (Bowden et al. 2000). Therefore, graduate attributes are educational outcomes that unite a university community. The above quote also reveals an uncertain environment awaits graduates, and implies that graduates who have fulfilled or attained graduate attributes are prepared for this, and will act as change agents with awareness and values that can be applied for ‘social good’. Significantly, Bowden et al. also frame graduate attributes as related to, but distinct from, ‘disciplinary expertise or technical knowledge’. They further note, however, that ‘the development of [graduate attributes] has little meaning until they are elaborated within the context of a discipline’ (Bowden et al. 2000). While this seems contradictory, it does suggest that graduate attributes are linked to, and achieved through, disciplinary learning. This article provides a critical review of the role of graduate attributes in the Australian university sector by examining three ongoing problems: employability and work-readiness; mapping and resourcing; and whether graduate attributes are genuinely generic. This includes considering how graduate attributes are implemented and the significance of context, which are often ill-considered or overlooked. This exposes that while graduate attributes have potential merit, the ability for them to be meaningfully used and implemented remains clouded. As a result, it is not surprising if universities and academics are not integrating these effectively into their courses and curriculum. In addition, academic indifference, reluctance and resistance to graduate attributes cannot be dismissed as obstinance, as this opposition may reveal fundamental concerns over their value and a lack of clarity regarding their purpose. While this article is not a comprehensive examination of all the issues, it nevertheless forefronts three major issues – as noted at the start of this paragraph - that explain why the graduate attributes agenda is failing to be meaningfully integrated across the Australian higher education sector; even twenty years after their implementation (Green et al. 2009). Problems and Pitfalls To establishing a background understanding of how graduate attributes are conceptualised at Australian universities, Table 1 provides an overview of the common graduate attributes. Through extensive website searches, I identified that thirty-eight of the forty-three accredited Australian universities clearly articulate graduate attributes that are generic across their undergraduate Bachelor degree programs (that is, they are not course specific). As Table 1 illustrates, graduate attributes in Australian universities combine attributes with qualities or skills that span cognitive, social, personal and interpersonal domains, which may overlap. As noted by Oliver (2013: 453-454), ‘informational literacy, for example, includes critical thinking and problem-solving, yet the three [as graduate attributes] are often listed separately’. Furthermore, to be ‘professional’ will involve applying knowledge and skills, reflecting a personal disposition, and demonstrating interpersonal skills that may  3   include teamwork. In this section, I will refer to this table when appropriate as the argument on the problems and pitfalls of the GA agenda in Australian universities develops. Table 1 - Qualities of common Graduate Attributes in Australian undergraduate Bachelor degrees, and their relationship to generic qualities or skills   Attribute Examples   Relates to generic skill/quality  Knowledge Knowledge, cognition, intellect, critical/ deep/ analytical thinking/ rigour or problem solving   •   Cognitive Creativity Innovation, creativity or creative thinking •   Cognitive Learning Lifelong/ continuous/ independent learning   •   Cognitive Citizenship Global and local citizenship/ competency/ engagement/ awareness, or intercultural awareness/ perspectives/ respect   •   Personal and interpersonal •   Social Ethics Ethics or ethical/ moral integrity   •   Personal and interpersonal •   Social Professionalism To be ‘work-ready’, being a leader/ professional, or apply professional judgement/ practices/ skills/ knowledge   •   Cognitive •   Personal and interpersonal Communication Communication/ literacy skills   •   Interpersonal  Employability and Work-Readiness A catalyst for the development of graduate attributes has been government, business and industry concerns about the work-readiness and employability of university graduates (Al-Mahmood and Gruba 2007; Yorke and Harvey 2005). The responsibility to anticipate and create the workforce for the future, traditionally assigned to vocational education, has become allocated to higher education in general (de la Harpe and David, 2012; Green et al. 2009; Hager and Holland, 2006). Higher education and its programmes are increasingly linked to economic productivity and growth, and the competitive knowledge economy (Bennett et al. 1999; Bridgstock 2009; Suleman 2016). As a result, it has been suggested that course planning and evaluation should focus on how well graduates are prepared for paid employment, and to highlight ‘areas of weakness requiring adjustments in pedagogical strategies, program content, learning activities and/or assessment’ (Jackson et al. 2013: 4). In this section, I will examine the association of the graduate attribute agenda with employment, whereby university learning has been reduced to job-related outcomes and the needs of the economy. For example, the Australian Federal Minister for Education and Training (21 September 2015 to 26 August 2018), Simon Birmingham, has stated that university excellence should be measured by  4   ‘employment outcomes for graduates, and the achievement of those employment outcomes’, as facilitated by ‘ensuring that the training and education they’re [students] receiving is strongly linked to employment outcomes’ (Birmingham 2016). Thus, pedagogy is influenced by factors beyond the university and, in this case, driven by narrowly-defined outcomes (namely, if graduates are employed). This potentially exposes differential administrative and educational agendas (Oliver et al. 2011), and reduces employability to ‘getting a job’ (outcomes) rather than the development of a suite of ‘employability skills’ that include a range of attributes and qualities. It is thus notable that ‘profession’, ‘professional’, or ‘professionalism’ are more common graduate attributes in Australian universities than ‘work-readiness’ and ‘employment’ (see Table 1). As suggested by Oliver et al. (2011: 6), however, attaining graduate attributes does not necessarily equal employability. That is, acquiring ‘employability skills’ or ‘professionalism’ does not necessarily guarantee or seamlessly translate into the employment outcomes of ‘getting a job’. The narrow definition of employability adopted by the Australian government and universities replicates traditional career trajectories, and focuses on initial employment outcomes immediately following graduation (Bridgstock 2009). This overlooks the uncertainty and fluidity of contemporary work including self-employment, casual, contract and part-time work (and shifting between them), the different skills needed in different workplaces as related to particular occupational groupings or disciplines, and the likelihood of having multiple employers in one’s post-university life. Furthermore, what constitutes employability and which graduate attributes facilitate this are debatable, incoherent, and uncertain (Bridgstock 2009; Suleman 2016). It has been suggested that personal and relational skills (such as interpersonal, communication, and teamwork skills) are highly valued by employers, but there is wide variability in how these should be exhibited contextually , and what other attributes or skills are desirable (Suleman 2016; Yorke and Harvey 2005). For example, industry, business, and government have distinctive needs based on the different skills required (Bridgstock 2009; Yorke and Harvey 2005). As a result, employability skills must be interpreted in, or designed on, a disciplinary or course-related basis. Being ethical, for example, may be relevant across all disciplines, but how to practice and demonstrate it varies considerably. This also applies to problem solving, critical thinking, and communication (Jones 2009); all common features of graduate attributes in Australia (see Table 1). As such, my categorisation of ‘problem-solving’ under the attribute of ‘knowledge’ in Table 1 may not reflect how it is applied within specific disciplinary contexts (Green et al. 2009: 21). Furthermore, Kinash et al. (2016) note that what are defined as graduate attributes are not enough for employability, which needs to be nurtured through additional activities that traditionally have not featured in university curricula. These include networking, mentoring, internships, work-integrated learning, leadership programmes, volunteering and career planning. How a student’s attainment of graduate attributes through such activities can be measured and assessed, however, is another issue. Aligning graduate attributes with industry needs could also undermine the development of other important skills, ‘such as nurturing societal good and developing intellect’ (Jackson et al. 2013: 4), as indicated in the previously provided definition of graduate attributes from Bowden et al. (2000 in Barrie 2006: 217). In addition, there is an assumption that employability skills can somehow be measured and captured in students prior to graduation (Clanchy and Ballard 1995). Graduate attributes that relate to professional practice and application, however, can only be truly exhibited in the workplace and with appropriate resourcing and support from the employer. In turn, the employability focus assumes students lack these skills and that they are studying for work-related purposes. This overlooks life experiences including the potentially different needs of mature age students (Yorke and  5   Harvey 2005: 44-5), or those already working in their chosen profession who might be seeking self-development and knowledge building rather than job-related opportunities. By ignoring student diversity and their various (desired and imagined) post-university pathways, the employability focus uncritically presumes a single outcome from higher education, while also ignoring other structural and personal factors that influence an individual’s capacity to engage in paid work and their work-related productivity.  Mapping and Resourcing For the employability agenda to be realised, graduate attributes need to be interpreted by academics and embedded in the design of degree programmes, teaching and learning approaches and assessment. This can be considered a ‘downstream’ or ‘top-down’ process (de la Harpe and David 2012), as graduate attributes are imposed upon disciplinary teams who are seen to be their harbourers, and are responsible to their students, the university, and external benchmarking bodies for their realisation and success. Change is more likely to occur if graduate attributes are introduced through a ‘bottom-up’ or ‘upstream’ approach that allows academics to lead the initiative and use language that is meaningful to them (Bennett et al. 1999). However, ‘the role of academic staff and their beliefs remain largely avoided, ignored or neglected when it comes to institutional attempts to embed attributes into the curriculum’ (de la Harpe and David 2012: 294). Students should also be engaged in such processes, but there has been little research on or from their perspective (Jones 2013: 603). For example, first-year university students could provide insight into what range of attributes, skills and qualities they hope to attain through their studies which, in conjunction with views from academics and external stakeholders, could inform meaningful, holistic development of graduate attributes. In addition, alumni could provide feedback on the usefulness of graduate attributes to their post-university pathways. How to integrate graduate attributes into disciplinary and professional courses poses significant challenges. Al-Mahmood and Gruba (2007) outline three ways this can occur: dedicated graduate attributes units that are separate from and additional to disciplinary/ professional units; an infused model where graduate attributes are covered in specific disciplinary/ professional unit/s by specialist staff; and an embedded model where graduate attributes feature across all units of degree study. Regardless of the model adopted, curriculum mapping aids in identifying what core skills are being taught and assessed, and what needs changing. This cannot occur without significant resource investment. For example, Sumsion and Goodfellow (2004) received a grant to undertake curriculum mapping of an early childhood degree programme, which was the start of identifying and implementing graduate attributes in their course. Additionally, in recommending a six-phase process to evaluate employability skills outcomes in business degree programmes, Jackson et al. (2013) note that this requires investment and time from relevant unit coordinators, payment for the involvement of casual staff, given the high rates of casualisation in Australian higher education (Bastin, 2014) and consultation with external bodies. Therefore, staff support and development is vital for the GA agenda including providing academic staff with the needed time, resources, training, rewards, recognition and effective leadership to support and develop the GA agenda (de la Harpe et al. 2009; de la Harpe and David 2012; Jackson et al. 2013; Oliver et al. 2011; Sumsion and Goodfellow 2004). Consequently, there are real and practical constraints in implementing, mapping, and teaching graduate attributes, which raise questions about what is reasonable, realistic, and feasible. In the Australian higher education sector, academics are expected to do more with less. Increasingly, this involves completing additional (unpaid) work in their personal time, which adversely affects their wellbeing (Loussikian 2016). Calls that are made to train academics to ‘get on-board’ with graduate attributes fail to consider existing workloads. This also does not consider whether the support, time and
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