Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

From university to work: Developing transferable skills

Eamon Murphy
School of Social Sciences and Asian Languages
Curtin University of Technology

The research

Developing transferable skills - skills that university graduates can take into the workplace - has become a major concern of Australian universities. Today's rapidly-changing and highly competitive labour market requires higher education graduates to have a wide range of skills that transfer from university to the workplace. Preparing students for the rapidly changing world of work, for periods of unemployment and for lifelong learning are among the most important, vexing and challenging issues facing higher education in Australia today.

The employability of graduates has become a key concern for universities. All universities these days now make strong claims about the qualities or attributes of their graduates and their employability. Course brochures and other marketing blurbs regularly use phrases such as "skills for the modern professional', "skills designed to help you find employment in today's rapidly changing society", and "the degree will enhance your analytical, problem solving, communication and writing skills". These claims however are very seldom backed up by any kind of evidence.

Particularly problematic are the claims of general degrees in the Humanities and Social Sciences about the employability of their graduates. The joke about what to ask the sociology graduate "Big Mac and fries, please" says something about the negative perceptions of many students, parents and employers of the value of a general degree.

Initial research was undertaken into transferable skills during my period as a National Teaching Fellow in 1995 when I began an investigation into the development of transferable skills through the Enterprise in Higher Education Initiative in the United Kingdom. During this period I was able to interview Directors of Enterprise units and others associated with transferable skills in eight universities. Further material was collected when I ran seminars on transferable skills at thirteen Australian universities during 1995. Additional research was conducted during my study leave program at the University of Plymouth in November and December 1996 when I interviewed staff and students, analysed evaluations and other documents relating to the Initiative and sat in on teaching sessions.

Launched in 1987, the Enterprise in Higher Education Initiative was touted as a partnership between students, higher education staff and employers which would better prepare graduates for the world of industry and commerce. Some seventy million pounds were made available through the Employment Department to 63 higher education institutions. Although each institution took its own approach, the programs generally had three common features: the development of lists of personal and interpersonal skills that the new programs would develop through curricular changes, the active involvement of employers in areas such as student work placement projects, and staff development programs to develop new teaching and learning strategies. While there have been some criticism of the Initiative the general consensus is that the funds made available enabled important changes to be made.

On analysing the documents relating to the Initiative and in interviewing staff and students I became aware of three problems in developing transferable skills: the identification of the skills to be taught, the question of emotions (the affective domain) in skill development, and the actual problem of transfer itself.

What are transferable skills?

One of the major problems is actually defining what we mean by transferable skills; it is much easier to draw up lists of skills. In workshops conducted at various Australian universities the participants invariably come up with similar lists such as communication, problem solving, numeracy and computer literacy. The University of Sheffield Personal Skills Unit surveyed 1,000 graduate recruitment advertisements which appeared in UK newspapers during June 1989. In order of importance were the following desirable requirements of graduates: oral communication, teamwork, enthusiasm, motivation, initiative and leadership (quoted in Thorley 1992:10).

A problem with using such lists is the blurring of the distinction between skills that can be taught and personal attributes that are much more problematic and dependent in part upon the unique personality of each student.

Lawrie Walker, former Head of the Enterprise Unit at Oxford Brooks University, warns (1995:23) that transferable skills is a term which "conceals complex human activity". He argues that most people would agree that graduates need a wide range of skills beyond their specific discipline skills and knowledge but that there is a great deal of confusion about what transferable skills are, how they work and, most importantly for academics, how they can be improved within a university course of study.

Lin Thorley, former Director of Enterprise at the University of Herfordshire, talks of personal skills as being "something of a catch-all phrase which includes a long list of skills, qualities and capabilities" (Thorley 1992:4). These skills are personal in that they are about how the individual behaves. They are transferable in that they can be acquired in one context and used in another.

Thorley writes of skills ranged along a spectrum. At one end are those skills that are specific such as being able to write well. In the middle she puts skills such as teamwork which have much more to do with how the individual operates in relation to other people. At the other end of the spectrum she places qualities and attitudes such as self-confidence, enthusiasm, the ability to complete a task which are perhaps not skills at all but rather personal traits. Bolles (1996: 181) advocates the need to separate traits or temperament (energy, determination, dependability) from more functional or transferable skills.

The action-research project "Improving the Personal Skills of Graduates undertaken at the Personal Skills Unit, University of Sheffield talks about the need to establish "a partnership between employers and higher education to promote a curriculum which catered for both the intellectual and personal development of undergraduates through a holistic approach to their education "(Allen 1991:1). The project identified the following four areas as appropriate to all disciplines: communication, teamwork, problem-solving and managing and organising.

The key question to ask is what skills should we try to develop. For example learning a language such as Japanese is clearly a skill that can be systematically developed and assessed within a formal course of study at university. Learning to write well in various contexts is somewhat more problematic. The most difficult question however is can universities develop such key personal attributes such as drive, determination, enthusiasm.

The role of emotions in transferable skills

When discussing transferable skills we also come up against the question of emotions which is very seldom discussed in depth yet is crucial to skills development. To deliver a good oral presentation, for example, for most students requires a degree of courage. Even highly successful public speaker never lost their fear of getting up in front of others but have learnt how to control and to harness the energy created by stress to greatly enhance their performances.

In his best selling book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman (1995: X11) argues that people of high IQ often fail while those of lower IQ are very successful at work because of the abilities he terms emotional intelligence. He argues that academic talent by itself was not a good predictor of success at work. Rather, success was dependent upon interpersonal skills such as being able to build consensus, being able to see things form the perspective of others, promoting cooperation and resolving conflict, and self management in being able to regulate ttime commitments well. Goleman (1995: X11) quotes the work of psychologists such as Howard Gardner who argue that a wide spectrum of intelligences beyond those normally associated with specific disciples skills are necessary for success in life. These can be summarised under the heading of interpersonal intelligence, which is the ability to understand other people and to work with them, and interpersonal intelligence, which is to understand one's self and to use that understanding to operate effectively (Goleman 1995:39).

In another best seller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey (1989: 48) states that effective habits requires knowledge (knowing what to do and why to do it), skills (how to do it) and desire (the want to do something). Undermining Covey's approach is that of balance and harmony: successful individual are able to develop their intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual sides.

One of the problems in discussing the role of skill development is that the role of emotions is all too often placed in the too hard basket. Goleman argues that such intelligences can be developed within an educational context but others would argue that academics have neither the time, facilities nor expertise in such areas. Yet we know that emotion plays a crucial role in all learning activities especially in the development of the intrapersonal and interpersonal skills listed above. Feelings are present is every teaching and learning situation whether we recognise the fact or not.

The problem of transfer

Some critics would argue that skills are not transferable, being specific to the context and to the discipline. As Kemp and Seagrave (1995:316) state: "We live in contexts, we learn in contexts and no two contexts are exactly the same." They state that cognitive skills, such as being able to analyse, synthesise, think critically and solve problems, are largely discipline specific.

It seems that some skills are common to most disciplines. Working in teams, for example, requires similar sets of sub-skills such as setting goals, allocating responsibilities, managing conflict. Some disciplines are more likely to focus on specific skills than others. For example, skills in debate, critical analysis and argument are more likely to be emphasised in arts and humanities courses that in the physical sciences, where generally students have a very much larger amount of content to cover. Communication skills such as writing are often very discipline specific and determined by the particular discourse of the discipline. Writing an anthropology essay requires different organisation, data collection, style and presentation that a chemistry lab report. One of the reasons why generic courses in writing effectively often fail is that they are not discipline specific. A written communication course that would satisfy the needs of a biologist would be useless for a marketing student.

The other problem of transfer relates to transfer from university to the workplace. Students who learn to write history essays for example are often unable to write the concise, clear reports which employer need. Being able to write a good essay on post-modernism as an English student, for example, does not necessarily teach one as a municipal employee to be able to write a tactful letter to a disgruntled ratepayer. Engineers who can communicate easily with other engineers find that when then move into management that they often have great difficulty in working and in communicating with individuals from other disciplines.

We need to take note of Kemp and Seagrave (1995:316) who state that the ability to contextualise skills is as important as the skills themselves and thus to afford students the opportunity to practise skills in a variety of settings. Important also is to help students to develop their metacognitive skills. One way to help students learn this skill is to give them opportunity to regularly reflect upon their learning.


The paper has outlined just three of the problems associated with the identification and the teaching of transferable skills. Too often the development of transferable skills is taken as granted or is assumed to be easy. The experiences both from the Enterprise in Higher Education Initiatives in the UK and similar projects in Australia demonstrate that the teaching of transferable skills is neither easy nor certain. Experiences from one UK university (Glasgow Caledonian University) show that there needs to be a radical rethinking of course structuring and delivery if transferable skills are to effectively developed (Kemp and Seagraves 1995: 327). The research conducted at the Caledonian University shows that there were wildly different assessment criteria being applied by lecturers to the same students leading to a high level of student confusion (Kemp and Seagraves: 1995: 327).

The experiences form the UK and Australia suggests that in fact transferable skills can be developed but that it requires planning, organisation and commitment and not least of all resources. (See Murphy 1996 and Gibbs et al 1994.). According to Dunne (1996), to teach transferable skills we need to first to make them explicit and then to develop fair and valid assessment criteria which are made explicit to the students. Ironically, according to Dunne the courses which make strongest claim to develop transferable skills, such as humanities and social sciences degrees, are often least successful because the development is taken for granted. The experience from the UK has shown that having resources available for staff release in order to develop teaching and learning resources are crucial for success. The involvement of discipline experts in teaching transferable skills is also essential according to Dr Brian Chalkley of the University of Plymouth (Chalkley 1996).


Despite the problems, the issue of systematically and effectively developing transferable skills needs to be addressed more seriously by Australian universities. Development of the most important transferable skills - to think critically, to learn independently, to communicate effectively - has always been the objective of the best university teachers. The process will be more effective when these skills are clearly defined and overtly built into the curricula and the delivery of courses. Helping students develop transferable skills can both improve the quality of teaching and learning in Australian universities as well as better preparing students for employment.


Allen, M. (1991). "Improving the Personal Skills of Graduates", Final Report, June, Personal Skills Unit, University of Sheffield.

Bolles, R. N. (1996). What Color Is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press.

Chalkley, B. (1996). Personal Communication.

Gibbs et al (1994). Developing Students' Transferable Skills. Oxford: The Oxford Centre for Staff Development.

Dunne, E. (1996). Profiling Student Within Degree Programs, Workshop, University of Plymouth 5 November.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. London: Bloomsbury.

Kemp, I. J. & Seagraves, L. (1995). Transferable Skills - can higher education deliver? Studies in Higher Education, 20, 3:315-328.

Murphy, E. (1996). "From University to Work: Developing Transferable Skills", Draft report submitted as partial requirement of the National Teaching Fellowship.

Thorley, L. (1992). Develop Your Personal Skills: A Do-It-Yourself Pack for Students. Hadley Wood, Barnet, D & L George.

Walker, L. (1995). Transfer Costs. Teaching News, 39 (Spring): 23-25.

Please cite as: Murphy, E. (1997). From university to work: Developing transferable skills. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p239-243. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/murphy.html

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