Penny WelchSchool of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, University of Wolverhampton, Stafford Street, Wolverhampton, WV1 1SB
Tel: 01902 322466 Fax: 01902 322739 Email: P.Welch@wlv.ac.uk
[Originally published in PSA News, Winter 1996]
The current skills debate in HE in the UK is concerned with the skills that undergraduates on programmes not directly professional/vocational should develop. The emphasis is on what students should be able to do, rather than on what they ought to know.
The main voice in the debate is that of government. Since the 1985 White Paper there have been eight more government interventions that have affected the organisation, funding and ethos of HE, the latest being the Dearing Enquiry. The dearing Committee's remit specifically includes 'that learning should be increasingly responsive to employment needs and include the development of general skills, widely valued in employment' and 'that the effectiveness of teaching and learning should be enhanced'.
Given this degree of prescription, it is particularly important that we should individually and collectively reflect on issues of student learning and bring our own expertise to the debate. I want to focus on the skills that undergraduates should develop as a result of studying Politics. Consideration of skills directs our attention to what students are learning and how well. We can move from there, if we choose, to considering the role of assessment in supporting student learning and then on to the appropriateness of the teaching methods we use. Such an approach builds on the commitment to students demonstrated by the vast majority of our colleagues and avoids appearing like the advocacy o change and innovation for its own sake.
At the 1996 PSA Conference, I ran a workshop under the auspices of the Teaching and Learning Specialist Group. The participants discussed what skills students developed on their courses, how staff knew that students had developed those skills and the positive and negative aspects on a focus on skills. I want here ot report what they said on the third question.
They believed that the positive aspects were the encouragement of reflection (by students on what they are learning and by staff on what they are teaching) and the enhancement of students' ability to acquire specialist knowledge. On the negative sides were the possibility of opposition from students and staff, the potential dilution of the specialist knowledge base and the practical difficulties of making sure all students developed core skills without constraining module choice too much or taking up too much space on compulsory modules.
In the general discussion, there was agreement that any imposition of the teaching of core skills from the outside would damage the integrity of the discipline and undermine our skills as academics and teachers. The way to resist such imposition was to consider within Departments and the discipline of Politics generally, ways to be more explicit about the skills we are encouraging and to add to them appropriately.
At the PSA Heads of Department conference later the same year, participants responded to these points by expressing concern about adding to existing workloads (already heavy because of student numbers) and about the practical difficulties of changing teaching and assessment styles to accommodate skills. Many staff found that more large ;ecture teaching was needed to ensure coverage of key aspects of the syllabus. It was suggested that political debate and argument and an appreciation of how politics happens in practice were central skills and that we should have nothing to do with externally imposed checklists.
The most positive advocates of reflection on what we do were the Scottish and Welsh colleagues who had already undergone the TQA in Politics. They said that not only did the self assessment part of the exercise require the identification and assessment of the skills and aptitudes that students were expected to develop, but that there were positive benefits for teachers in being obliged to examine their assumptions, clarify their expectations and demonstrate that they had achieved what they set out to achieve.