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In my opinion

It’s more than a job that students are looking for

Pursuing graduating student attributes in Canadian higher education.


With shrinking public funding and stronger corporate influence in higher education, universities’ identities are changing. In the evolving world of Canadian higher education, it is paramount that universities engage in conversations regarding the qualities that they desire to see in students as a result of undergraduate education.

The University of Alberta has taken the first steps in this direction, prompted by the Students’ Union and the Centre for Teaching and Learning.

Undergraduate students share many concerns about their education. They worry about increasing tuition fees and the additional costs of non-instructional fees and textbooks. They want collaborative learning experiences and, of course, the prospect of gaining employment following graduation.

During the 2011-12 academic year, I served as vice-president academic of the Students’ Union at the University of Alberta, and was quickly introduced to many of these issues. However, much of my term was spent on a particular conversation, entitled Graduate Student Attributes (or GSAs). This concept was first introduced in Dare to Deliver, the 2011-2015 University of Alberta Academic Plan, as a priority of both the Students’ Union and Centre for Teaching and Learning.

The proposal builds on activities that have been taking place at Australian universities. In the 1990s, Australian universities implemented GSA projects at their respective institutions, as a condition of funding established by government. In an article entitled Understanding what we mean by the generic attributes of graduates, Simon Barrie of the University of Sydney writes, “In Australia the definition of relevant, worthwhile core outcomes of higher education has been one element of many universities’ efforts to demonstrate that they are providing a relevant education.”

Describing GSAs can be a tricky process, particularly due to confusion in terminology (note that the attributes do not refer to students in graduate programs, but to students graduating from undergraduate degree program).

At its essence, the GSA project involves universities establishing clear learning outcomes for their undergraduate student populations, to be achieved by their time of graduation. In other words, GSAs represent the qualities or attributes — beyond disciplinary knowledge — that universities wish to develop in students through an undergraduate degree. For instance, the University of Sydney builds its undergraduate education around three overarching ideas: scholarship, lifelong learning and global citizenship. Together, these qualities represent The Sydney Graduate, and they are developed “through students’ participation in the rich intellectual and social life of the university, through the learning experiences of their courses and the diverse extracurricular activities available.”

Considering the changing identities of Canadian universities, I believe that the GSA projects initiated in Australian higher education are particularly relevant to our university leaders. Canadian higher education is incredibly complex, for universities must respond not only to the interests of faculty and students but also to those of private businesses, provincial and federal governments, accreditation agencies for professional schools and more. Writing about the transformations to higher education, Ronald Barnett of the University of London said in University knowledge in an age of supercomplexity, “in a dynamic world, in which frameworks, values, images, and identities are expanding and colliding, new challenges arise for higher education.” Preparing students for particular lines of employment is no longer sufficient. Indeed, this manner of thinking is myopic, and is not in the best interests of undergraduate students. Instead, universities must now focus on developing particular attributes or qualities in their undergraduate students. The GSA discussion is worthwhile, because it provides a much-needed university-wide discussion about the kinds of people that universities can and should produce through undergraduate education.

When I speak with fellow students about their reasons for attending university, the initial responses are often based on future employment. Evidently, one enters engineering in order to become a professional engineer, just as another student registers in nursing in order to pursue the profession of nursing. However, it is the role of universities to create engineers and nurses, scientists or historians that not only thrive in their chosen professions but also adapt effectively to unfamiliar and uncomfortable issues that arise without forewarning. Viewing higher education as a means to employment is short-sighted, for most university alumni will change professions on multiple occasions. “One of the hardest tasks in the West,” write Martin Haigh and Valerie Clifford, “will be to break free of our individualistic and materialistic mindset. It is necessary, therefore, to create an education system that is constructively aligned with the notion that a worthwhile life has a purpose beyond individual economic achievement.”

During my one-year term as vice-president academic, the University of Alberta established within its academic legislative system a subcommittee on attributes and competencies. The committee assembled students and faculty from across campus who were tasked with “consult[ing] widely across campus in order to learn about the distinct character of University of Alberta students,” among other roles. This subcommittee reports to the university’s senior committee on learning, which serves a key role in “articulating and supporting the development of core sets of skills, attributes and values to be incorporated into graduate and undergraduate programs…” (a statement included in the 2011-2015 Academic Plan).

Interestingly, the GSA project at the University of Alberta is a grassroots initiative: it was both proposed and is championed by the Students’ Union, with active faculty participation and support from administration. Three co-chairs have coordinated the subcommittee: the vice-presidents academic of the undergraduate and graduate student associations, and an associate dean from the faculty of engineering. The project is a multi-year process, with several years required for consultation en route to establishing a short list of attributes that represent students across all faculties.

With the initiative now in its second year, the consultation process has led to a set of seven attributes that are said to represent University of Alberta students from all faculties. The attributes now under discussion are ethical responsibility, scholarship, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity and confidence. Though the subcommittee has made considerable progress, the deliberations have not lacked challenges, including:

  • Terminology: In Australia, the phrase “Graduate Student Attributes” refers to undergraduate education. Thus, University of Alberta leaders have experimented with various terminologies, such as “Student Attributes” and “Graduating Student Attributes.” It is important that the language clearly defines what segment of the student body (undergraduate, graduate or both) participates in the discussions.
  • Accreditation: If professional faculties participate in GSA projects, then they will likely have to shape their interpretation of undergraduate education in a way that responds to both professional accreditation demands (the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board, for instance) and the attributes set by their own institution.
  • Implementation: Though the University of Alberta has not yet reached this stage, there is no question that this will be a challenging process. The 2011-2015 academic plan states that the implementation of attributes chosen at a university-wide level is best led by faculties, which can then work with departments and programs to interpret attributes based on their own unique cultures.

Looking back at the two years of discussions around GSAs, I am proud to see a university-wide conversation developing based on the student attributes fostered by a University of Alberta undergraduate education. The discussions between students, faculty and administrators can be intense, but this is exactly what universities need. As the environment external to Canadian higher education transforms, these internal conversations provide a much-needed period of reflection, where universities clarify their aims and envision the types of people that they intend to produce through the higher education experience.

Emerson Csorba served as the University of Alberta Students’ Union vice-president academic during the 2011-2012 academic year. He is a third-year student in Sciences politiques at Campus Saint-Jean, and intends to pursue graduate work in the philosophy of higher education.


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