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State of Research

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Are Future Skills something new or just old wine in new bottles? What is actually the point of this new, popular term? What is the real content of the concept and what is new about it?

Hereafter, it will be discussed how Future Skills are defined, what existing Future Skills approaches include, and what the state of research on Future Skills and on important terms and concepts comprises.

State of Research 1 - Terminology

Research in the area of Graduate Attributes concentrates on determining which competences – as attributes of graduates – are of particular relevance to their subsequent success on the labour market. Apart from this, research is being carried out into which teaching-learning strategies are particularly suitable for the development of such attributes, both of a didactic and curricular nature. After reviewing the literature, Trevleavan and Voola (2008) present eleven different terms for Graduate Attributes: key skills, key competencies, transferable skills, graduate attributes, employability skills (Curtis & McKenzie 2001), soft skills (BIHECC 2007; Freeman et al. 2008), graduate capabilities (Bowden et al. 2000); generic graduate attributes (Barrie & Ginns 2004, Bowden et al. 2000), professional skills, personal transferable skills (Drummond et al. 1998), generic competencies (Tuning Report 2008). Rigby et al (2009) summarise these synonymous terms under the umbrella term „graduate skills“. They thus refer to skills that are not only relevant for professional development, but also and above all focus on personal development and the holistic education of the individual to become a committed member of society (ibid.: 4).

State of Research 2 - Employability

Employability, in the sense of a lifelong employability, can be scientifically defined and empirically investigated. Competences and skills that are relevant for employability can be determined. Research shows that Graduate Attributes are important for employability.


  1. In a comparative literature analysis of the years 2006 to 2014, including 39 studies, Osmani and colleagues (2015) collected a comprehensive set of 53 Graduate Attributes.


  2. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in cooperation with the Business Council of Australia, has identified a set of competencies and personal attributes that workers assessed to correlate with higher work performance (2000).


  3. The NCVER Report (2003) relates Graduate Attributes to Employability and concludes that graduates with Graduate Attributes have a competitive advantage over those with weak or low levels of competence in terms of graduate attributes.

State of Research 3 - Graduate Attributes

Those competencies or skills that are particularly relevant to employability are often transferable and referred to as interdisciplinary competencies, generic competencies, key competencies or soft skills.


  1. The labour market is undergoing change (Jackson 2014; James et al. 2004), which should be reflected in university curricula. Rigby et al (2009) identify a necessary shift from pure content knowledge towards process knowledge in curricula. This change also has an effect on a changed pedagogy: The knowledge transfer paradigm has to be enriched by constructivist teaching/learning models (Rigby et al. 2009: 5), which, according to Tenenbaum et al. (2001), is not necessarily reflected in practice despite its anchoring in existing curricula. The main reason for this may often be the uncertainty of the teaching staff: Who should teach Graduate Attributes and how and which methods can be used for evaluation? (Freeman et al. 2008)


  2. As research shows, graduates must not only develop Graduate Attributes in the sense of skills, but also the readiness and willingness to apply them in practice (Trevleavan & Voola 2008; Hoban et al. 2004; Kember & Leung 2005).


  3. According to Rigby et al. (2009), the core problem for anchoring graduate attributes in higher education curricula is that there have been two opposing opinions in the literature on how graduate attributes can best be conveyed: 1) Train Graduate Attributes along with subject-specific course content, whereby the graduate attributes to be trained should be relevant in the respective disciplinary context (Barrie & Ginns 2004; Sin & Reid 2005; Thompson et al. 2008; Bowden et al. 2000; Star & Hammer 2007; Drummond et al. 1998; Bath et al. 2004). 2) Graduate Attributes Disciplines – teaching independently in separate course formats (Cranmer 2006). While the first approach is based on the assumption that forms of teaching must adapt to changing market demands (Biggs 2003), the latter seeks to retrofit skill deficits of individual students by a modular principle without focusing on the necessity of changing teaching concepts. Osmani et al (2015) propose a „double approach“, that anchors graduate attributes in the curriculum on the one hand (1) and offering additional employability programmes and workshops on the other.

State of Research 4 - Curricula

It can be stated that there is a general deficit of the curricula of higher education Institutions in promoting competences that are particularly relevant to employability.

  1. In their study, Finch, Hamilton, Baldwin and Zehner (2013) identified factors that have an impact on the employability of graduates, showing that employers attached the greatest importance to soft skills; academic reputation was rated as the least important. Similar findings can also be found in the studies of Daud et al. (2011) or Finch et al. (2013).


  2. In the report on employers‘ satisfaction with the level of the Graduate Attributes among their employees, Hager et al. (2002) have shown that the performance of employees was only evaluated as „appropriate“. This is to be understood as a hint for higher education Institutions, which have so far failed to adequately train their graduates in the skills that are critical for the market.


  3. In this context, Rigby et al. also speak of an „implementation gap“ (2009: 8), Osmani et al. (2015) call it a „broad mismatch“ (see ibid. 367).


  4. According to Tran (2015), graduates of higher education Institutions are poorly prepared for the labour market and its demands, as curricula are often outdated or irrelevant.


  5. Study results by Gibbs et al (2011) and Stone, Lightbody and Whait (2013) suggest that cooperation and dialogue between stakeholders (higher education Institutions, employers, students, …) is the key to adequately exploring and reconciling skill needs and training opportunities. Daud et al. (2011) come to the same conclusion. In their study they revealed a gap between the Graduate Attributes of graduates of business and management studies demanded by employers and the performance of these graduates after their studies. The authors therefore conclude that curriculum design should always take into account the employee’s perspective and consider which competencies future graduates will need in their future field of work.


  6. Dewey and colleagues (2008) analysed the expectation gap between competences postgraduates exhibit after accomplishing their graduate studies and those considered essential by employers. It turned out that there were discrepancies between the expectations of the employees and the competences imparted in the educational programme.


  7. In US literature, the gap between the skills demanded by industry and those taught at higher education institutions is documented by a number of empirical studies (e.g. Aasheim, Williams & Butler (2009); Cox et al. (2013); Koppi et al. (2009); Koppi et al. (2009)). I.e. Koppi and colleagues (2009) examined how the curriculum of US bachelor students could be better adapted to the requirements of the labour market. It turned out that it was not the division of business and technology courses that needed adjustment, but that the curriculum should instead be aligned at focusing on communication and teamwork skills.

State of Research 5 - Research Stakeholders

21st Century or Future Skills are a recently emerging research topic by the World Economic Forum, UNESCO, the European Commission or the OECD, which deals with the question which graduate attributes are particular relevant in order to act in an increasingly globalised and digitised world in a socially creative, responsible, sustainable way and in accordance with the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals (Osmani et al. 2015; Rigby et al. 2009). Despite many years of discussion and research, the embedding and integration of effective skill development is still considered „difficult to operationalize effectively“ (Drummond, Nixon, & Wilkshire (1998: 21).

State of Research 6 - Previous Trends

The approaches to 21st century skills from the last 10 years and to Future Skills from the past 5 years are often oriented towards the design of policy framework recommendations and are not always empirically based or based solely on sectoral data collection. Therefore, the present study is particularly relevant for closing this gap by empirically operationalising Future Skills.


State of Research 7 - Model Classification

The existing approaches generally consist of lists of more or less important skills but are not based on sound competence theory approaches (Barrie 2004; Clanchy & Ballard 1995; Sin & Reid 2005). There has been no modelling so far that makes it possible to critically classify the models with regard to their substance and scope.

State of Research 8 - Personal Characteristics

In most of the existing approaches, it becomes apparent that they go far beyond listing what graduates should know (knowledge) and be able to do (competences) and besides relate to a wide range of personal characteristics (Rigby et al. 2009). Therefore, they not only subsume individual skill components under Graduate Attributes, but also the attitudes, values, dispositions, abilities and competences of individuals.


State of Research 9 - Identity Development

An interesting approach is to understand attributes and skills for employability not as lists of characteristics and abilities, but in a broader sense as part of the identity that is to be developed holistically within the framework of academic studies. These approaches mainly refer to Bourdieu (e.g. 1986 1990) and include habitus (internalization of cultural norms) and capital (social, cultural and economic capital) as components. These approaches do not focus on the acquisition of a set of individual skills, but rather on supporting students in their transformation into their professional role in working life. These more holistic approaches appear promising, but still are rare. Osmani and colleagues (2015) therefore recommend including graduate attributes in higher education curricula in order to meet the demands of tomorrow’s world of work at best.

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