Transferable skills are a by-product, not the object, of a university education – University Affairs


One professor balances the push for transferable skills in college courses with her own reasons for teaching history.

The rhetoric around the value of higher education is a strange mixture of high idealism and professional efficiency. Why go to college? Recruitment materials champion the institution’s ability to help you broaden your thinking, make the world a better place and start a career. Improve yourself, heal our planet and find a job. For this third objective, the focus is generally on “transferable skills”. Even if you end up working outside of your field of study, prospective students are told, the skills you develop in college will make you an attractive candidate in the job market.

We’ve been hearing a version of the employability argument for years. When I was a student, I met him through an advertising campaign featuring a bank president extolling the study of medieval literature because of the skills it imparted to his employees. My reaction was ambivalent. Part of me felt justified when a successful businessman said that my seemingly mysterious field of medieval studies was of value in his world. But another part of me felt that the campaign diminished the intellectual integrity of the field in one way or another; and I was concerned that upholding an academic discipline based solely on its business value would cede the terms of the discussion to those who might care little about knowledge for its own intrinsic value. Did we really want to argue that medieval literature, or whatever, was important to understand because it helped train workers who could increase corporate profits? Wouldn’t it be better to cultivate a broader appreciation of what we have studied?

Now that I’m a teacher, I see the employability argument a little differently. While I refuse to place it at the center of explaining what I do, I see how it can be used to help people study what really matters to them. Students spend a lot of time and money on their studies, and they seek reassurance that they will one day have a paid job. It seems to me – a first generation graduate from a working-class background – quite reasonable. I have met many students who say they feel pressured by parents, guidance counselors and peers to choose a major that will get them a job. When they ask me for my opinion on how they can study history, I am grateful for the research showing that humanities degrees actually lead to satisfying, well-paying careers. These students already know that a history degree is a worthy endeavor, and employability data helps them persuade others that they need the support.

Still, I struggled to balance the practicality of the transferable skills push with the fundamental reason I teach history: not to make great employees, but to help people discover, understand. and interact with the human past. It was only recently that I found a way to overcome my discomfort. I have decided that transferable skills are a useful outcome of college education, but not the goal. Transferable skills are a by-product, not the goal, of a university education.

While it might seem little different whether we ask professors to teach transferable skills or expect students to transfer the skills they have learned, I think this distinction is actually quite important. For me, this made it easier to explain to students what skills they are developing and why. Pupils in history lessons acquire a lot of skills. They practice finding and selecting evidence, interpreting sources, listening to different perspectives, putting together a strong case, and communicating their findings convincingly. I have no doubt that these skills are useful in many contexts but, as a history teacher, I teach them specifically in the service of history. I teach these skills so that students can understand historical issues and make sense of historical evidence. In other words, I am not teaching these skills as transferable skills; I teach them as historical skills that my students can transfer to any setting they see fit.

The distinction is also useful more broadly in explaining and defending the real value of a university education. I have seen that students bring with them to my courses valuable skills that they have learned in other courses and in different disciplines. We help all students make sense of their world; the students themselves transfer what they have learned to where they think it is needed. Some of our students will continue their studies at university, but most will finish their studies and find a job or take care of their families or just be in the world for a while without a fixed schedule. I certainly hope that whatever their future roles, these students will bring their learning with them. And I am fully aware that the future they face is unpredictable. Back in the discipline that I teach, I tell my students that I don’t know what their world will be like, but that I try to follow the advice of Hugues de Saint-Victor, a teacher of 12e Century Paris. “Learn everything,” he wrote. “You will see after the fact that nothing is superfluous.

Mairi Cowan is Associate Professor, Education, Department of Historical Studies, University of Toronto – Mississauga.


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