Key Skills and the Teaching of Politics

Penny Welch

School of Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences, University of Wolverhampton, Stafford Street, Wolverhampton, WV1 1SB

Tel: 01902 322456  Fax: 01902 322739  Email:


[Originally published in ECPR News, Autumn 1999]

The Skills Debate

The question of skills in general, and key skills in particular, is an important strand in the broader debate about the nature and purpose of higher education in the UK. The identification and development of skills as well as knowledge in degree programmes has been embraced enthusiastically by some higher education teachers, approached cautiously by others and rejected by a considerable number. The issue is a sensitive one because it is closely linked to criticisms of traditional teaching methods and demands for more external checks on quality and standards. Such attempts to challenge academic judgement and autonomy predate the expansion of higher education in the 1990s and the abolition of the official distinction between universities and polytechnics in 1992 but appear to have intensified as the implications of structural change in higher education have become clearer.

The Response of Politics

The broad picture in Politics is of engagement with skills. A recent survey of teaching methods in the discipline found 'a clear and positive valuation of the development of students' personal and interpersonal skills' (Stammers et al, 1999, p.125). Colleagues in Scotland and Wales have already been obliged to specify the aims and objectives of their courses in preparing for the Teaching Quality Assessment visits that took place in 1995-6. Departments in Northern Ireland and England are in the middle of doing so ready for 2000-2001. A representative group of political scientists is currently drafting a benchmarking statement under the auspices of the Quality Assurance Agency that will include an outline of the anticipated skills of Politics graduates.

The Dearing Report

The summary of the report of the national Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education chaired by Sir Ron Dearing (NCIHE, 1997), discusses skills within a section entitled 'The nature of programmes'. Recommendation 21 at the end of the section states that institutions should develop, for each programme of study, a statement of outcomes that describe the knowledge and understanding, key skills, cognitive skills and subject-specific skills that students will have when they graduate. According to the Dearing report, the key skills that students ought to develop during degree programmes are:


This part of the Summary Report relates particularly to evidence submitted by employers of graduates and reflects the Committee's brief to investigate how student learning can be made 'increasingly responsive to employment needs and include the development of general skills, widely valued in employment' (NCIHE, Request for evidence, July 1996). Employers quoted in reports and surveys during the 1990s tend to concentrate on intellectual skills, key skills and a range of attributes that can be summarised as 'business awareness'. The latter category does not appear in the Dearing typology but seems to be reflected in paragraph 39, which advocates the value to employers and students of work experience.

The Value of Key Skills

It seems to me to be reasonable for the government and its agencies to ask academics to make explicit the range of intellectual qualities graduates in their subject are likely to possess and to specify the skills graduates will be able to bring to a variety of occupations. While such documents cannot encapsulate all aspects of the teaching and learning process, the reflection and discussion that goes into its preparation is likely to have positive effects. We can get professional satisfaction out of adjusting our programmes to provide more opportunities for students to learn and practice the skills which we value. Discussion with students about how they can develop and refine their skills can enhance their motivation and performance and help towards their career goals. Dearing's list of key skills can be integrated into Politics programmes without too much difficulty. We may need to alter the balance of assessment tasks in order to give more space to oral communication skills and to numeracy. More systematic use of communication and information technology will depend on institutional facilities and our own enthusiasm but there are strong indications that both are increasing. Learning how to learn can be given more emphasis through structured study skills provision at Level 1 and more active encouragement of reflection on learning at Levels 2 and 3. While teamwork and problem-solving do not appear on Dearing's list of key skills, they are frequently mentioned by employers, seem to be entirely compatible with the study of politics, and opportunities to develop them already exist in many of the activities and assignments we ask students to undertake. It would also be both challenging and useful to extend our contacts with a broad spectrum of companies and organisations, public, private and voluntary, to discuss graduate skills and work experience opportunities with them.

Remaining Problems

In order to have the inclination to follow the Dearing agenda, however, we need to be reassured on several issues. First that the emphasis on generic and transferable graduate skills will not be used to de-emphasise the knowledge and understanding that comes from the study of our discipline and which forms the content, context and intellectual underpinning for the exercise of graduate skills. Second, that employers recognise that higher education has a duty to individuals and society as well as to the economic future of the country and that even the needs of a market economy cannot be reduced to the requirements of employers. Finally, that government accept that higher education's capacity to generate new human knowledge and understanding is intimately linked to the respect shown for academic freedom and autonomy.


National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, (1996), Letter to higher education institutions requesting evidence, July.

National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, (1997), 'Higher education in a Learning Society' (Summary),

Stammers, N. et al, (1999), 'Teaching and Learning Politics: a Survey of Practices and Change in UK Universities', Political Studies, 47(1).

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