The Development of Transferable Skills in Business Studies Degrees

Article excerpt

Introduction

At a recent conference of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the Education Secretary, David Blunkett informed the delegates "that the government planned to build more employment skills and work experience into the higher education curriculum" (Tysome, 1998). He added the warning that the new Quality Assurance Agency would monitor developments and identify "failing" institutions. In his opinion, this approach had already proved effective in implementing government policy in the primary and secondary school sectors.

This emphasis on closer links with industry is a continuation of policies developed under the previous Conservative government. It dates back to 1987 when the Secretary of State for Employment launched the Enterprise in Higher Education (EHE) initiative. Its main aim was to "assist institutions of Higher Education develop enterprising graduates in partnership with employers" (Training Agency, 1988). In response to this, the University of Ulster established an Enterprise in Higher Education Unit with the objective of developing an institutional framework which would afford every student the opportunity to develop the requisite competencies. The results of these early activities were disseminated at a conference at the University and in a special edition of this journal.

As a consequence of all this, changes occurred both in the content and delivery of modules. It is the aim of this article to examine the outcomes and perceived value of the use of group work in teaching and assessment in several modules in the School of Commerce and International Business Studies. Within this broad aim several specific objectives will be pursued. These are to evaluate:

students' attitudes to group work;

students' attitudes to peer and self assessment;

the development and use of skills involved in group work and assessment;

the impact on group work of factors such as gender, entry qualification and year and level of study.

Personal transferable skills

Bailey (1993) provides the following explanation of a term which has undergone several changes of meaning during the past decade:

Enterprise skills or personal transferable skills are those competencies which enable and assist students to be successful not only throughout their student career but also in their subsequent personal and professional work lives. Today's student needs to be able to translate theory into practice - not just "know how to" but to actually perform. This requires not only academic training but also life skills training. Industry, Business and Commerce are interested in the development of personal transferable skills and recognise the key role that higher education plays in this process.

In the following, the term "transferable skills" will be used in order to avoid confusion. In the opinion of the authors this is currently the term most widely used. It also encapsulates most accurately their understanding of a particular set of skills which, once acquired, can be transferred to a variety of work situations.

Closer examination of the range of transferable skills, as outlined by Brown & Pendlebury (1992) and Heywood (1994), suggests a breakdown into four broad areas:

cognitive skills - solving problems, using information, evaluation, thinking creatively;

social skills -working with others as leader and team-members, communicating; self-management - flexibility, independence, initiative, risk-taking;

learning to learn - knowing how one learns in different contexts and being able to identify and apply the appropriate style(s) of learning.

Within these four areas, more specific skills can be identified. The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) (1995) reports the results of a survey, carried out by the Personal Skills Unit at the University of Sheffield, in which the ten most important attributes which employers seek from graduates are listed as follows: 1) oral communication; 2) teamwork; 3) enthusiasm; 4) motivation; 5) initiative; 6) leadership; 7) commitment; 8) interpersonal skills; 9) organising; 10) foreign language competence. …