Competency-based Higher Education : Which Competencies?

Competency-based Higher Education is the new mantra in the United States, something that the For-Profit sector loves to talk about. The reaction to this is bound to be ambivalent elsewhere, particularly in Europe, where Competency-based Education has a rather long tradition, though not in Higher Education. Whether this is a new idea or an old thing packaged anew, the old questions persist - whose competencies and who gets to define them.

The answers are less obvious than it appears. An offhand answer may treat a sector or an industry as the starting point, which was the traditional approach followed in European Further Education and now being copied in the developing countries. While such competency frameworks may have some merit, we are also aware of their limitations - that the individual employers may not necessarily follow the same competency frameworks (in other words, company culture plays a dominant role regarding which competencies are valued) and these are highly dynamic in any case. Also, sectoral competency mapping often falls short because they are outdated even at the conception, given how long such a complex activity, if it is done adequately, usually takes. 

Indeed, an useful shorthand for the sectoral skill requirements is to benchmark the requirements of the leading employers. Usually, these requirements are sufficiently detailed, tested in practice and mapped against the local labour markets and take the supply-side factors into account. However, educators usually detest being beholden to any one employer (or a group of them) because they think that this can lead to non-transferable skills. Besides, it is also difficult to identify, and indeed engage, employers to be the benchmark for any sector, because the largest employers may not reflect the emerging trends and the most innovative practices usually remain at the fringe.

The ideas about Competency-based Higher Education have therefore converged on soft skills. The reigning assumption is that the technical skills, dynamic as they are, should remain in the domain of employer sponsored training, and the education sector should primarily concern itself professional abilities. Such thinking is indeed grounded in the idea of the whole-person development, the core proposition of Higher Education, which is somewhat being replaced by the new generic professional skills demanded by employers, such as collaboration or communication skills.

Appealing as it may be, there are three specific problems with this argument in favour of the focus on soft skills. 

The first problem is that this is not what the employers (or the industry) expect. Traditionally, Higher Education has delivered two things for the employers - basic technical skills, and at a higher level, evidence of character. Someone coming from a good university was expected to know his stuff (technical skills) and be good at it (persistent and resilient, honest etc.). The employers made elaborate arrangements to provide for the missing piece - professional abilities like collaboration, problem solving etc. Now, as the Competence-based Higher Education focuses on Professional Abilities, it often end s up duplicating what the Corporate Learning and Development teams are set up to do. While this is welcome - indeed employers keep complaining about the lack of professional skills in students - a new paradigm of education built solely on this is less so. The employer expectation from Competency-based Higher Ed is basically Higher Ed Plus Plus, and not just a different focus.

The second problem is that the soft skills need a much longer time to develop. In fact, one can not possibly ever be certified having achieved a soft skill - say teamwork - even if they demonstrate a high level of it. Besides, these skills are a combination of habits and behaviours, rather than measurable knowledge, formed inside practice and contained solely within it. In a framework where (in spite of the rhetoric) education is a time-bound activity and employment is what one does till one retires, the reversal of roles in educators taking up the soft skills and leaving the technical ones to employers is counter-intuitive.

The third problem is that these soft skills are essentially contested concepts, laden with cultural significance. What is communication skill in America may not be that in France, the German work ethic is very different from that of the Indians, and collaboration may mean two different things in Britain and Japan. Often, endeavours to construct models of soft skills education are laden with value judgements, and out of sync with the supply-side dynamics of the labour markets. One may indeed argue that competency-based education is all about the demand-side, but even employers are people with different ways of seeing the world in different cultural contexts.

In summary, then, Competency-based Higher Education may not be about changing the traditional mix of Higher Education, that of knowledge and character, but adding a demand-side focus along with it. Additionally, this demand-side focus needs to go beyond anecdotal engagements, and delve deeper into labour market realities, taking into account not just the current demand but also the emerging ones, and the supply-side factors (for example, any competency-based education proposition in India should include English language training). This new model of Higher Ed is supposed to pose a higher level challenge to the educators, and not make things easier for them to sell courses. This is a brave new world, and only the most agile could possibly win.






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