Academic Literature

Soft Skills Development in Europe – Different methodologies and approaches

Pushed by current socio-economic projections, a rising number of governments and international institutions are trying to bring closer the world of education and training and the world of work: graduates’ employability, innovation and entrepreneurship, ICT use in tertiary education, are just some of the topics on this agenda. The level of youth unemployment across the world is one factor in the increasing pressure on universities to tailor their curricula on current labour market needs as well as anticipating competencies for future jobs. From gathering evidence on skills demand, experimentation with curricula design, research on the training and assessment of soft skills in academia, to university-business cooperation, universities can provide an important contribution both with research initiatives for evidence-based policies and actively working toward the development of national and international skills strategies.

Soft skills, might be listed among the expected outcomes of the university curriculum. From 1999 to 2010, the Bologna Process members aimed at creating the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), which was officially created with the Budapest-Vienna Declaration of March, 2010.

Since 2001, Dublin Descriptors have been adopted as the cycle descriptors for the framework for qualifications of the European Higher Education Area. They offer generic statements of typical expectations of achievements and abilities associated with awards that represent the end of each Bologna cycle: knowledge and understanding, applying knowledge and understanding, and the ‘soft’ skills; making judgements, communication skills, learning skills. The Member States have gradually integrated the descriptors within their Higher Education systems. In Italy, for example, in 2010, the Ministry of Education published the Qualifications Framework for Higher Education, which summarises the main features of the Italian Higher Education Degree System, describing each course in terms of credits and general learning outcomes. In spite of this general trend, the focus of the programmes offered at most EU universities is still based on teaching traditional scientific skills rather than on soft and complementary skills.

The decade 2010-2020 has been aimed at consolidating the EHEA, so that universities may become motors of change and innovation. One strategic action is the curricular reform to tailor higher education institutions to the requests coming from the labour market.

Mismatches between skills and jobs, such as skill gaps in the workplace, shortage of adequately skilled figures for certain positions or the abundance of candidates in sectors where there are not enough suitable vacancies need to be corrected. Effectively anticipating which skills will be required by companies in years to come is crucial in order to equip future workers with the ‘right’ competencies.

The aim of this article was to enhance understanding of soft skills and to indicate key areas for soft skill development at University level.

One difficulty is represented by the fact that different countries have different methodologies and approaches to the teaching and recognition of skills for employability. The presence of such discrepancies requires that cooperation should be strengthened among the different stakeholders to find common solutions and educational models that provide a common set of skills and of training tools.

Another obstacle is represented by the absence of a common language. This is why in the first part we discussed different definitions and classifications of soft skills in order to enhance the understanding of this theme.

One further issue is to identify the soft skills most required by the labour market. Different studies have investigated on this theme. We presented two examples, carried out during two European projects, of quantitative and qualitative researches.

The comparative analysis of the state of the art of soft skills development in different European countries presented in the fourth part of this article painted a very dishomogenous picture: although the topic is widely debated in all the countries, in some of them (Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, UK) there are many initiatives going on, whilst in some others (Greece, Italy, Spain) the topic is still developing. Nevertheless, besides national and transnational initiatives (many European projects have been carried out on this theme), we mapped “best practices” coming from European halls of residence, where besides with learning methodologies and techniques, soft skills development is fostered through an opportune environment.

The importance of the “environmental factor” is also stressed in the recent Report published by the High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education:

Universities and higher education institutions, as part of the education system, should not educate students only in narrow, knowledge-based specializations, but must go further, seeking the integral education of the person. […] Efforts need to be concentrated on developing transversal skills, or soft skills […]. In order to develop these skills, teaching is not enough: an appropriate environment is also required. For example, extra-curricular activities, whether organized in a university/college/institute environment, ranging from volunteering, culture and the arts, to sports and leisure activities, help develop soft skills and nurture talents.

Future research should focus on the relationship between soft skill development and environmental conditions, not only at university but also in schools and on the job, also exploring the connection between these skills and what was already known as “hidden curriculum”, i.e. the unwritten, unofficial, and often unintended lessons, values, and perspectives that students learn, as a function of implicit values held by the institution as a whole. The hidden curriculum consists of the unspoken or implicit academic, social, and cultural messages that are communicated to students while they are in a specific environment (school, university, hall of residence etc.) and that are part of the organizational culture of that environment. Educators (school teachers, university professors, halls of residence directors etc.) need to be aware of the symbolic aspect of the environment and of their role in structuring students’ soft skills.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at “Lost in translation”. Soft skills development in European countries | Cinque | Tuning Journal for Higher Education

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