Is the ‘Transferable Skills’ trend destroying our education system?

Amelia Oakley 27 December 2015

To count the number of occurrences of the catchphrase ‘transferable skills’ on the Cambridge University website would be a heroic task. Nobody knows any more when transferable skills first appeared on the scene and became the bottomless source of student irritation and the object of comedians’ mockery that it now is. It is clear, however, that Cambridge as much as the whole of higher education is completely obsessed with them. 

There is a tendency to view all you take from studying history, philosophy and literature as the seed of abstract skills which is best replanted later into the more fertile land of law, consultancy or banking. However, I do like transferable skills. 

Their emergence was absolutely vital to wipe away old imperialist models of education that essentially equated learning with cramming facts. I also appreciate why they have become so prominent in recent years: the globalised economy, and increased competition are pushing us to drop education into the box with the heading ‘Human Capital’ and leave it there. Clearly, skills like communication or synthesis are more economically valuable than an understanding of Aristotelian ethics. But deep inside we all know that human capital is not all there is to education.

The prism of economic utility has been limiting the way society views education for a while. The government’s relocation of universities from the Department of Education to the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) in 2009 bolstered the trend to see universities primarily as providers for businesses. Subjects with lower rates of graduate employment are constantly being dubbed ‘'useless'’ by the media. Oxford’s recently published report on trends in higher education contains a long section called '‘Education as a tool to achieve economic success and development'’. Oddly, I can’t find any section entitled ‘'Education as a tool to promote democracy and freedom in society’'. 

I don’t want to sound like some kind of de-growth humanist ignorant of how business works. I just want to say that it’s time to put more weight on the non-transferable aspects of education. 

Higher education, and I am now talking mainly about the humanities, can teach us to see how others see the world, to apply moral considerations to life and politics, to be aware of historical precedents and many other things. These things are extremely valuable and useful in and of themselves. One does not have to be George Orwell reincarnated to see that something is going wrong in Europe (and elsewhere) today. Extremist parties are coming into prominence in most countries, radicalism is on the up, the EU is falling apart, and war is being declared. It’s really important that students of arts subjects use their acquired knowledge in these areas to help us to reflect on these issues. 

One journalist in the NY Times recently lamented universities’ reluctance to make students apply what they have learned in arts and humanities: '‘[L]iterary critics, philosophers and art historians are shy about applying their knowledge to real life because it might seem too Oprahesque or self-helpy. They are afraid of being prescriptive because they idolize individual choice.’' I am not sure how much of that is true but it does not matter. The key thing is that humanities are incredibly relevant to real life. At a time of impending social and political crisis like today, we need to have more arts students entering the public arena, writing commentaries, organising discussions and campaigning for the things that matter. 

We need a bit less chat about how to apply skills from history to the world of consultancy and a bit more chat about what Marx, Austen, Kant, Hayek, Sartre and the rest of the crew can teach us about the world around us. University needs to encourage and praise the development and widespread usage of non-transferable skills. Reports on successes of higher education – like the one from Oxford – must tell us how well universities are managing to do this.