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Title: Understanding Generic Graduate Attributes
In seeking to accommodate new demands and reinterpret their purpose over the past decade, universities in many countries have attempted to clarify the nature of the education they offer to their students and their contribution to society through a description of the qualities and skills their graduates possess. These descriptions of core graduate abilities are referred to by different terms in different higher education systems. In Australia these statements of graduate qualities are termed 'generic graduate attributes' and are intended to describe 'the skills, personal attributes and values which should be acquired by all graduates regardless of discipline or field of study' (HEC 1992). While the descriptions may vary, the generic, non-discipline specific nature of such attributes is their defining feature. The Australian government now requires that all university plans 'include a description of graduate attributes' (DETYA 1999). The extent to which the rhetoric of such statements actually represents a shared understanding of the outcomes of a university education is unclear to many members of university communities. The extent and manner in which university teaching and learning processes actually develop such outcomes is even less clear. How the 'core outcomes of a university education' could be generic in the face of contemporary debates as to the various purposes of a university and the diversity of disciplinary content and pedagogies is even less clear.
After a decade of policy statements claiming generic graduate attributes and extensive funding of core and generic skills initiatives, the indications are that despite innovative practices in some areas, as a whole, the higher education sector has not been particularly effective in addressing the development of core skills and attributes (Kemp & Seagraves 1995, Drummond et al 1998, Coaldrake 1998). It is also apparent that research clarifying the underlying conceptual basis of such graduate attributes is still lacking (Clanchy & Ballard 1995, Holmes 2000).
This paper reports on research that has revisited the rhetoric of institutional claims of generic graduate attributes' from the perspective of phenomenography (Marton & Booth 1997). The results of an investigation of academics' conceptions of generic graduate attributes at a major Australian university will be presented. The results of the analysis identify qualitative differences in academics' understandings of both the concept of generic attributes and of the processes by which graduates develop such attributes. The structure of the variation is not a reflection of discipline differences rather it is a hierarchy of increasingly complex conceptions of graduate attributes as learning outcomes. Academics' understandings of the process of development of such attributes show a similar degree of variation.
The observed variation in academics' understandings has significant implications for universities' current attempts to implement systematic curricular reform and teaching development aimed at achieving and demonstrating such core outcomes of a university education in graduates. The findings may also shed light on the limited success of similar attempts over the past decade. The session will provide participants with the opportunity to discuss and explore the implications of the research findings for initiatives in their own universities.
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