What’s a university education for?

Second in a series of posts on graduate attributes; here’s the first


As educators, we probably could articulate a few answers to that question. It promotes knowledge about the world, as reflected by our disciplines. It induces curiosity about things, and to make positive change. It gives you the values, dispositions, and skills to be both principled and influential.

It’s much easier to define a university education by what it’s not. It’s not job training, though it gives you the necessary skills for a range of vocations. It’s not about filling you with information, but empowering you with the knowledge that leads to wisdom. It won’t make you rich quick, though it will boost your earning potential. I could wax lyrical about these outcomes all day.

That’s what graduate-attribute lists are for. Graduate attributes are

the qualities, values and dispositions that students have developed by the time they have completed their university degree program. While not dissociated from disciplinary knowledge, they are fostered in each student regardless of field of study. [Source: University of Alberta, 2013]

A faculty like the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary can develop a ‘framework’ for graduate attributes: that is, not a list of every outcome of every program, but broad categories into which those outcomes can fit.

Take, for example, a category like ‘communication.’ It works differently for sociologists visualizing data than for philosophers writing arguments.

Each faculty, department, and program graduates different kinds of students, with different set of skills and knowledge. But there are ties that bind our departments, our faculties, and our university together.

So there are at least three reasons to develop frameworks for graduate attributes:

  1. Understanding ourselves.  It makes our shared identity explicit. It sets out our common values and purpose in terms that are broad enough to be flexible, but narrow enough to be concrete. What is a Faculty of Arts for? How is it distinct from a faculty of engineering, science, business, or architecture?
  2. Explaining ourselves. It tells our students, our city, our colleagues in other faculties, and others what kinds of graduates we produce. And if necessary, it defines how we deliver on public investments.
  3. Defining ourselves. It defines success in concrete terms, even if that’s really hard to do. And it gives every discipline a framework for discussions.

That last one sounds like accountability-talk, and might raise your skeptical hackles. Isn’t this just another quality-assurance bean-counting exercise that lowers morale and distracts us from the real work of teaching and research? Even if it does everything you promise, doesn’t it threaten academic freedom?

Look. I’m a humanist (English professor) as much as an Associate Dean, skeptical of anything that feels like an exercise in standardization or self-justification. I rely on my academic feedom to let me teach whatever texts I want, so long as they meet the calendar description. And I’m not interested in anyone telling me I have to teach all of these attributes in each of my courses.

A graduate attributes framework isn’t a yardstick. It’s not a set of rigid expectations that anyone’s going to use to measure and quantify your teaching.

Two further objections occur to me:

  • The Faculty of Arts is huge and diverse; our graduates include everyone from military historians to musicologists to macroeconomists. Do we really have anything in common? Won’t these attributes be so vague that they’re meaningless?

They are broad categories, but keep two things in mind. Frameworks are just a set of categories for disciplines to define for themselves. What’s more, they’re not exhaustive or exclusive; each discipline can start with these six categories and add a dozen more. But we must agree that there are some outcomes we all agree on, that extend beyond disciplinary boundaries — and yet are distinct from the outcomes that other faculties would put on their own shortlists.

  • So are these attributes going to be carved in stone, like Hammurabi’s Code? Or can we adapt them with time? What if our programs change?
The Faculty of Arts is always changing, because the nature of our disciplines are reflecting new frontiers of knowledge and new ways of contending with the world. Our attributes are supposed to be a living document, like the constitution — but much easier to amend or rewrite entirely. These six categories are a starting point for discussion, but it would betray our inquiring spirit to let them conclude it.

Leave a Reply