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What is the 'skills training' agenda?
Now Playing: What is the 'skills training' agenda?
The group discuss the introduction of skills training into research degrees, focusing particularly on how this has evolved in arts and humanities departments. They compare the relatively unstructured nature of research in the arts and humanities with structured skills training schemes which are common in the sciences, and they also explore similarities across all research degrees.


Cindy: I think there has been a development in universities – it develops differently in different institutions in the sense that when the Roberts’ Report was published, which as you know was talking about the idea that we need to provide skills training, and the idea of the skills agenda that we all talk about: making our postgraduates more employable and more valuable to the economy, when the money flowed in from that, I think it took arts and humanities maybe slightly by surprise and science seemed to buy up huge chunks of it straightaway because the connection was obvious. And social sciences weren’t far behind. And we are certainly seeing a gradual awakening to the idea that there should be money for skills within the arts and humanities rather than just in what one might see as the more obvious fields. I think for us as well, as I’m sure for the other universities, the pressure on employability wasn’t necessarily so great; it was quite easy to not necessarily ignore that, but not to take that as a central theme within postgraduate provision. For us and I’m sure many other universities being under funding bodies, you know, funding councils being much keener on saying ‘well if we are going to provide support for your students we expect there to be skills training’ and that seems to be the boost for arts and humanities that got people really going in terms of provision. But it still seems to be very variable in different departments. And I’ve been lucky in teaching English postgraduates, and in English and in History and so I’ve been able to see some comparison there and there is some dovetailing going on between those two departments. And we do have a graduate school of arts and humanities here and they are really into training. I think, sensibly, relatively cautiously, as you were saying, bringing in the obvious and then when they had a situation thinking where are the overlaps and what do they represent and how do we fill those. And so for us it still a developing programme, you know, with the funding that is available.

Do you think there is an issue of translating this model that is already established in the sciences and then it is almost like, only in the last couple of years, we are suddenly having to think about how does this apply to arts and humanities students and what are they going to make of it? Because especially if they had seen their peers in the sciences going through this process of often quite structured skills training, and the nature of arts and humanities research is very, you know, there are an awful lot of stereotypes in there, it is airy-fairy, pursuing knowledge for the sake of. It is not expected to contribute to the knowledge economy and it’s not expected to have a kind of tangible result in terms of employability, it is just a project that you know enhances life for everybody.

Cindy: Yeah, I think you’re right about stereotypes, and the trouble with stereotypes are likely to say it couldn’t possibly relate to us and to ignore it, you know, for quite some time. And I have been interested, particularly now working within social sciences, in just how similar the training needs to be for scientists and for arts and humanities and the social sciences. And a lot of people could say, as you say, ‘well I’m just thinking great thoughts, it doesn’t matter whether it contributes to anything’ Of course a scientist will probably say the same thing, I don’t know whether scientists think of themselves in the way we maybe see them. But I think you’re right it is a problem, it is the maybe old fashioned way of looking at postgraduate students coming through to be PhD students, partly I think based on the assumption that they will become academics and that’s just such a huge shift – they won’t all become academics. And that is, less and less, coming as a rather unpleasant surprise in their third and fourth year as coming to be something they realised quite early on in the PhD is to do something different in their lives. And so I think the pressure is accumulated from lots of different areas which I think makes it easier to introduce the idea of scholars training as well, as you say, you can get the model right and the structure right.