Improving Outcomes-Based Engineering Education in Australia

Article excerpt

1 INTRODUCTION

Graduate attributes are now a ubiquitous feature of higher education in Australia and internationally, and have been part of engineering education for more than a decade. The idea of graduate attributes is an apparently simple concept, focusing on educational outcomes, rather than inputs and process. However, research has revealed limited understanding of graduate attributes among educators and an often superficial response to graduate attributes by institutions. While there is evidence of some benefits in engineering education arising from the introduction of outcomes-based accreditation, there is also evidence of many short-comings of the graduate attributes approach. This paper seeks to explore the issues and problems associated with the graduate attributes approach to engineering education and to propose some options for improving the system.

2 GRADUATE ATTRIBUTES

Arising from the push in higher education for quality assurance, accountability for outcomes and capability of graduates (Leathwood & Phillips, 2000), specifying a list of qualities or capabilities that graduates will attain provides a benchmark against which the performance of a higher education institution can be measured. As required by the Department of Education, Science and Training since 1998, most Australian higher education institutions identify a list of expected graduate attributes or outcomes, though, for many universities, statements of graduate attributes have historically been more rhetorical than real (Lister & Nouwens, 2004). Graduate attributes are typically expressed in terms of: a) discipline-specific attributes that relate to the particular program(s) the student is studying; and b) generic attributes that are common to all or most graduates. It has been suggested that it is the generic attributes that are the most important (Hager et al, 2002), perhaps because the discipline-specific body of knowledge is prone to obsolescence and will require continual renewal, and in the longer term, as graduates progress in their careers, they will become less involved in the details of their discipline and more reliant on their generic skills.

Although an apparently logical and natural response to a shift in higher education thinking and policy in the early 1990s, which saw a move away from inputs to a focus more on outcomes (Clanchy & Ballard, 1995), because of their important role in higher education, graduate attributes, particularly "generic attributes", warrant a closer inspection. Graduate attributes form a component of an on-going evolution of competency-based education and training that can be viewed as five separate phases commencing in the late 19th century (Lloyd et al, 2001). In fact, graduate attributes, particularly generic attributes, are not underpinned by a strong conceptual framework, and the efforts of universities to describe them, and university staff to teach them are characterised by a wide range of differing terminology, viewpoints and approaches (Barrie, 2004). Australian academics do not share a common understanding of the nature of generic attributes and how such outcomes might be achieved (Barrie, 2006). Despite a pervasive influence on recent policy developments in higher education, the evidence from the literature indicates that graduate attributes have generally been implemented only in limited ways, and viewed by many staff as a primarily managerially-driven curriculum reform agenda (Moore & Hough, 2005). The fact that the stated graduate attributes of many universities, and even many different professional program accrediting bodies, appear to be remarkably similar can lead many staff to cynically view these lists as rhetorical organisational posturing, rather than anything of substantive educational value (Moore & Hough, 2005). Another criticism of many identified graduate attributes is that they purport to imbue students with a range of knowledge, skills and attitudes that are not directly observable in the course of a program of study, or cannot be determined to be in evidence until some future period in the student's personal and/or professional life, leaving the university with a certification task that is logically and/ or practically impossible (Chanock, 2003). …