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Developing frameworks to embed graduate attributes in tertiary courses

Sue Sharp
School of Education, Edith Cowan University

Heather Sparrow
Quality in Curriculum Unit
Faculty of Community Services, Education and Social Sciences
Edith Cowan University

Edith Cowan University (ECU), in Perth, Western Australia, is one of many universities world-wide working to develop and implement a framework for graduate attributes. Although courses at ECU are well known for their focus on professional skills and the preparation of work-ready graduates, policy in regard to graduate attributes was not well articulated, and there was not a coherent approach across the Faculties. In 1999, the ECU Strategic Plan identified graduate attributes as a priority. A working party was established to develop a set of graduate attributes which would be relevant to all students, supported by all stakeholders, applicable to the full range of courses, consistent the university's mission, and powerful in its ability to demonstrate improved student outcomes. The working party was also asked to recommend processes for implementing graduate attributes effectively across the university. A literature review and some simple benchmarking exercises were conducted to investigate the effectiveness of other universities in managing graduate attributes.

A Graduate Attributes Proposal was developed which incorporated recommendations for nine broad categories of attributes, a process for seeking agreement amongst the university community, and strategies for implementation. Five course-based trials were conducted during 2001. Each used the recommendations to identify relevant graduate outcomes and embed them into the taught programs. Formal course documentation has been amended to reflect changes in curriculum content, teaching methods, and assessment. A formal evaluation of these trials is still to be completed, but an initial investigation suggests that the broad categories proposed are useful and easy to apply, and the processes recommended are sensible and effective. All trials report that a significant amount of time is required for course teams to work together to develop shared understandings. Participants in the trials predict that future success in implementing graduate attributes effectively will depend on the time allocated to the task by academic staff.


Across the second half of the twentieth century, governments and universities around the world have shared a common understanding that one outcome of tertiary study should be the attainment of skills, attitudes and concepts relevant to employment. This view was articulated by the Robbins and Dearing Reports in UK (Robbins, 1963; NCIHE 1997), while in Australia, the Finn (1991) and Mayer Committee (1992) Reports, clearly established the importance of key competencies for employment in compulsory education and training. Throughout the 1990s, the skills agenda (Holmes, 2000) has been widely debated, using a variety of terms such as key competencies; generic skills; core capabilities; transferable skills and more recently graduate attributes. An indication of perceived importance of these qualities in the Australian university sector, can be seen in the inclusion of questions about the teaching and learning of graduate attributes in the current Course Evaluation Questionnaires (CEQs). CEQs are used by the Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs (DETYA) as a public measure of the quality of degree programs, and are therefore significant drivers in defining quality in university teaching and learning.

Many universities have been active in defining graduate attributes and exploring strategies to cultivate and evaluate the development of relevant generic capabilities. The Australian Technology Network E Universities One Vision Project (Bowden et al, 2000) is a particularly significant reference in the field, and it provides many useful examples, based on 13 projects from five Australian universities. Graduate attributes include, but go well beyond, the disciplinary or technical knowledge and expertise that traditionally formed the core of most university courses. They may include qualities that also prepare graduates as life-long learners; as agents for social good, and for personal development in light of an unknown future (Bowden, 1998). Throughout the last decade, government has encouraged Australian universities to develop individual and distinctive missions and it is expected that the graduate attributes of students should also reflect the specific mission of the graduating institution.

Development of a university-wide approach to graduate attributes

Although Edith Cowan University has origins in teacher education (from 1902), it only gained university status in 1989. Part of redefining its contribution as a provider of tertiary education has involved serious debate about its mission and purpose. This has led to a focus on the service and knowledge professions, and the adoption of the guiding themes of Service, Professionalism and Enterprise. The ECU Strategic Plan (2000 Update) and the ECU Teaching & Learning Management Plan (2000) clearly established the intent that ECU graduates would be characterised by the high quality of their skills, knowledge and attitudes relevant for employment, particularly in the Service and Knowledge Industries. Although there were many examples of courses which worked hard to develop relevant graduate attributes, there was no shared view of the ECU Graduate, nor a consistent and rigorous approach to the identification of relevant graduate attributes, their definition, implementation and assessment.

In 1998/9, Edith Cowan provided competitive funding for projects to advance the strategic direction of the university: including the development of graduate attributes. Three independent projects received money from the ECU Strategic Initiative Fund (SIF), and were active through 1999/2000:

The common goals and natural inter-relatedness of the three projects were quickly recognised. It was suggested that they should be drawn together into a collaborative framework, to improve project efficiency and to ensure a coherent approach for the development of ECU graduate attributes, which could be agreed and actively supported throughout the University community. A proposal outlining a draft university-wide approach was developed under the working title of GATEWAY (Graduate Attributes in Tertiary Education Workplace Advantages for You). A key theme of the proposal was the need for wide debate about both the vision and the direction suggested. All documentation provided was regarded as draft, and the success of the proposal was thought to depend on the achievement of a critical mass of support. Faculties were invited to respond to the GATEWAY Proposal through informal discussion. Responses to the Proposal were varied but common themes included: The ECU Teaching and Learning Committee took up responsibility for the GATEWAY Proposal and a working party with representation from across the university took on the task of reshaping the GATEWAY Proposal to take account of feedback from the Faculties. A process was agreed which included:

Review of existing practice

An investigation of ECU initiatives, and activity at a number of institutions from around Australia and the world suggested definite patterns, common processes and conditions necessary to maximise the chances of successful implementation of graduate attributes into university courses and units. The review includes the following findings: As part of the review, Michele Scoufis shared the work and experiences of the Core Graduate Attributes Project team at the University of Western Sydney with ECU staff. A powerful message from this interaction was the significance of academics in the process:
...Academics played a central role in determining how the graduate attributes would be defined, contextualised, developed and assessed in their field of study. It was critical to avoid the perception noted by Trigwell, in his account of the UTS Graduate Attribute Project, that attributes were imposed on academics within the School .........(furthermore) Academics need to be provided with pragmatic but sound ways, by which they could easily integrate the development of the attributes into their curricula (Scoufis, 2001)

Identifying and defining graduate attributes

The review also compared the specific attributes considered relevant, and the processes of selection. Not surprisingly, institutions from around Australia, England and the USA identified and described graduate attributes in many different ways, and each university reached their decisions about attributes differently. The most striking difference is the amount of information provided. Varying from a simple statement to descriptions with added features or lists of what seem to be key words. Some lists include extra words intended to provide examples of what the term means and others are deliberately brief and intended to allow interpretation across the university. An example of one graduate attribute, common to all institutions, but defined and interpreted in many different ways, is communication. Appendix One provides an example of this divergence.

Most commonly universities use a structure whereby a small number of abilities are centrally defined as common across the university, but this is part of a larger scheme embracing all student programs where the skills and knowledge to be achieved are described. The greatest responsibility for development of policy is normally at the level of the department, but the structure is established centrally. In almost all schemes the abilities are embedded in the taught modules, and there are no separate skills modules.

A typical process

Based on the review of other institutions' experiences with graduate attributes the following process was developed, and recommended to the ECU community, through the ECU Curriculum Teaching and Learning Committee:

1.InstigationEstablishment of leadership, funding and resourcing for research and development of graduate attributes.
2.DebateUniversity wide debate about the value and nature of graduate attributes (including all stakeholders: academic, students, employers, and wider community).
3.Policy agreementAgreement on a university wide framework for graduate attributes.
4.Course-based responsesCourse-based discussion to interpret university graduate attributes in terms of specific courses.
5.Course auditsAudits of existing courses with review of:
  • teaching processes
  • content
  • learning outcomes (aims) assessment
6.Course based changeIdentifying processes for research change and implementation.
7.TrialsSmall scale trials and case studies.
8.Evaluation/ reportingEvaluation and reporting of trials and case studies to university.
9.Broader implementationExpansion of implementation across a wider range of courses (rare to be university wide).

Implementation of the ECU graduate attributes process

Throughout 2001, ECU has been implementing stages one to seven of the process. Activity at each of these stages has been concurrent rather than sequential: This reflects the fact that many elements of the process had commenced prior to its articulation. The ECU Curriculum Teaching and Learning Committee assumed responsibility for leadership in the advancement graduate attributes. A working party with representation from across the university drafted a framework of eight recommendations, including processes for implementation and a set of nine attributes (GATEWAY Revisited) (See Appendix 2). The recommendations incorporated existing ECU practice, feedback from the faculties, and lessons learnt about effective practice from the review of other institutions. Strategic initiative funding was committed to support trials. The ECU Curriculum Teaching and Learning Committee decided to advance the trials as a method of generating serious debate and providing good quality data to support decision-making.

Five trial graduate attribute projects were set up among interested staff in the Faculty of Community Services, Education and Social Sciences. Each project developed initiatives to conduct course audits, and identify, embed and assess graduate attributes within courses and units:

Trial OneSchool Psychology (Lynne Cohen/Julie Anne Pooley)Identifying, integrating and assessing graduate attributes in the Psychology undergraduate curricula
Trial TwoSchool of Education (Judith Rivalland/ Susan Krieg)Embedding graduate attributes in the K-7 Education Course (Joondalup)
Trial ThreeSchool of International, Cultural and Community Studies (Trudi Cooper)Identifying, integrating and assessing Graduate attributes in the Youth Work-Studies undergraduate curriculum
Trial FourSchool of International, Cultural and Community Studies (Vicki Banham/Jayne Brown)GAPS (Gaining Access to Practical Skills) Program: Embedding Graduate Attributes enabling a smooth transition from university learning to the world of work
Trial FiveKurongkurl Katitjin (Peter Reynolds/ Carol Scherret)Using graduate attributes to enhance quality teaching in Kurongkurl Katitjin's courses

Overall outcomes

An evaluation of the five projects and the effectiveness of the collective SIF Project is in progress. Indications are, however, that the projects have been very successful in stimulating change: The reported experience of the participants broadly supports the validity of the ECU Graduate Attributes Process. Academic course teams were unanimous in the belief that they had to take ownership of, and engage with the process themselves. This takes time. Across all projects, the major difficulty encountered has been one of academic time. Extended discussion amongst the course team is regarded as absolutely critical. Project members contributed far more hours to the projects than were budgeted. They gave their time willingly, as they were interested and committed, but all noted that:


Whilst the process of embedding graduate attributes into courses and units at ECU is still at an early stage, the review of the experiences of other institutions, together with our own initiatives indicate that a sound approach to implementing graduate attributes should include: The importance of academic ownership of graduate attributes; the need for professional development and support for staff and the provision of adequate academic time cannot be overstated. Where these conditions are met, our experience indicates there can be extremely positive outcomes for course development, and staff interaction. The development of shared understandings, and changes to course content and processes should lead to improved student outcomes. This will be the focus for continued research.


Bowden, J., Hart, G., King, B., Trigwell, K., & Watts, O. (Jan, 2000). ATN E University Report: One Vision Project: Generic capabilities of ATN University Graduates. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/ATN/

Bowden, J. & Marton, F. (1998). The university of learning: Beyond quality and competence. London: Kogan Paul.

Dearing, R. (1996). Review of qualifications for 16-19 year olds. London: Schools and Curriculum Authority (now Qualifications and Curriculum Authority).

ECU GATEWAY Proposal Working Party. (2000). GATEWAY Revisited. Unpublished paper. Perth WA: Edith Cowan University.

Finn, B. (Chair). (1999). Young people's participation in post-compulsory education and training. Report of the Australian Education Council Review Committee. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Holmes, L. (2000). Reframing the skills agenda in higher education: Graduate identity and the double warrant. http://legacy.unl.ac.uk/relational/papers/reframe.htm [verified 21 May 2002 at http://www.re-skill.org.uk/papers/reframe.htm, to be published 2002 in D. Preston (Ed), University of Crisis. Rodopi Press].

Mayer. E. (Chair) (1992). Key competencies. Report of the Committee to Advise the ACE and MOVET on employment related competencies for post-compulsory education and training. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

NICHE (National Committee of Inquiry in to Higher Education) (1997). Higher education in the learning society.

Scoufis, M. (2001). Integrating the development of graduate attributes into the undergraduate curricula-implications for staff development.

ECU (2000). ECU Strategic Plan (2000 Update). Perth, WA: Edith Cowan University.

ECU (2000). ECU Teaching & Learning Management Plan (2000). Perth, WA: Edith Cowan University.

Appendix One: Communication defined by each institution

(from unpublished paper, by Sue Sharp, presented to GATEWAY Working Party September 2000)
UniversityAttributeStatement or definition
Curtin, School of BusinessCommunicationDivided into writing, speaking out and presentation.
Uni of South AustraliaCommunicationCommunicates effectively in professional practice and as a member of the community.
Uni of Western SydneyCommunicationEffective written and oral communication skills
RMITInterpersonal and public communicationStudents should develop the abilities to reflect upon and integrate their personal, professional, and academic experiences in ways that allow them to work and live effectively in different contexts and environments.
Uni of WollongongCommunicationCommunicates clearly and fluently in writing and is self-confident orally articulate.
Oxford BrookesCommunicationLearning outcomes are specified for all modules and programs.
De MonfortCommunicationCommunicate effectively through spoken language, using effective written communication, using effective visual communication
NapierCommunication skillsGeneral writing skills: report writing: verbal communication: presentation skills.
North LondonCommunicate effectively in contextSelect appropriate communicative media, singly and in combination, listening. Speaking, reading writing, drawing, symbolising, tabulating, mapping, recognise and use standard.
NorthumbriaCommunication skillsUse clear, appropriate and accurate written, oral and aural styles: make use of standard IT tools to enhance communication: use and resent numerical data effectively to enhance communication: use visual and media styles to enhance communications: communication one or more languages other than the mother tongue
Oxford BrookesCommunicationThis refers to a student's general ability to express ideas and opinions with confidence and clarity, an ability to use language and form when writing or speaking, an ability to present ideas to different audiences using appropriate media, an ability to listen actively and persuade rationally.
WolverhamptonCommunicate effectivelyWriting skills, write accurately and effectively in a variety of structured formats and demonstrate the appropriate conventions in each. Recognise different audiences and demonstrate use of appropriate written styles and relate these to appropriate audiences. Oral presentations.

Appendix Two: Draft recommendations from GATEWAY Revisited (2000)

Recommendation One:
ECU will have an on-going commitment to graduate attributes and will agree a broad framework of graduate skills, capacities and values, which will guide the selection and development of more specific course learning goals. ECU students will be characterised by their competence across a wide range of these skills, capacities and values.

An ECU Graduate Attributes Framework will define agreed areas in which ECU's values of Service, Professionalism and Enterprise are integrated and applied to the mastery and practice of students' chosen professions. Effective practitioners in the knowledge-based service professions demonstrate competence in the areas listed below. Each ECU course will select, develop, and define specific skills, knowledge, and attitudes in these attribute areas, and systematically provide relevant learning and assessment experiences for students. The emphasis may be different in each course. As work on the implementation of graduate attributes continues at course level, recurring themes will be documented. There will be an initial trial period of two years, followed by a mandatory review of categories. This will allow for amendments, or new categories will be added to the Framework.

Recommendation Two:
The GATEWAY Proposal be replaced by a new initiative Graduate Attributes at ECU, which will adopt an embedded, scaffolding approach to the development of graduate attributes Recommendation Three:
Detailed definitions of graduate attributes will be agreed at course level Recommendation Four:
Graduate attributes will be assessed in the context of units Recommendation Five:
ECU graduates will communicate their achievements through enhanced course transcripts and optional portfolios Recommendation Six:
Change will be implemented either through the natural processes of course approval, review and accreditation, or on an accelerated basis where appropriate or strategic. Changes to courses may be required in: Recommendation Seven:
The development and implementation of graduate attributes requires appropriate resources and support. This should be leveraged from a variety of sources.

The initial implementation of the graduate attributes requires dedication of resources from across the University for at least two years. Approval of this recommendation indicates agreement to make the graduate attributes project a priority task, with appropriate resourcing in the following areas:

Recommendation Eight:
A Graduate Attributes' Advisory Committee will be appointed to monitor progress in the development and implementation the new proposal Graduate Attributes at ECU.

CTLC will monitor progress in the development and implementation of the proposed Graduate Attributes at ECU. It will report results to Academic Board and recommend improvements, so desired outcomes are achieved in a timely manner.

Authors: Sue Sharp, School of Education, Edith Cowan University
Heather Sparrow, Quality in Curriculum Unit, Faculty of Community Services, Education and Social Sciences, Edith Cowan University. Email: h.sparrow@ecu.edu.au

Please cite as: Sharp, S. and Sparrow, H. (2002). Developing frameworks to embed graduate attributes in tertiary courses. In Focusing on the Student. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 5-6 February 2002. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/sharp.html

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Created 23 Dec 2001. Last revision: 21 May 2002. HTML: Roger Atkinson [ rjatkinson@bigpond.com ]