The ASSET-H project aims to improve the employability of Humanities students by bringing into focus the value of the skills of these students for the labour market. The crucial question then of course is… What does that skills profile look like when you ask the Humanities students themselves?
Pilot research in Leuven: the issue of vagueness
ASSET-H Partner KU Leuven first started looking into the topic of Humanities skills at its own Arts Faculty during a pilot research phase in 2016-2017. In a first stage of that pilot phase, students and staff were presented with an open field questionnaire and asked to write down what skills they had acquired during and through their education at the faculty. This bottom-up approach led to 14 skills clusters (such as ‘critical thinking’, ‘language system and proficiency’, ‘sensitivity to nuance and complexity’, ‘interculturality’) which intuitively capture quite nicely what it means to be a Humanities student. In light of employability it would be great if these clusters were described in highly specific terms, but the results also made clear that Humanities students have difficulty to describe the skills they have to offer in terms that are sufficiently specific and detailed for the labour market. They tend to stick to fairly generic and abstract wordings such as ‘critical perspective’ or ‘adopting a critical stance’ – expressions which readily apply to university students from other programmes and faculties and thus fail to accurately describe the unique perspective that Humanities students bring to the workplace.
Getting down to detail
In the second stage of this pilot phase, Leuven thus set out to create a list of concrete, meaningful descriptions of skills for each of the 14 clusters. The researchers gathered input from focus group discussions with core stakeholders, skills descriptions derived from a literature review and the occasional elaborate statement in the pre-test, and created a self-perception survey for Humanities students. Two control groups (students from other programmes and faculties) were used to single out the qualities that belong distinctively to students of Humanities.
Survey answers were analysed quantitatively. On this basis, a bottom-up skills profile for the faculty of Arts at KU Leuven was built, which consisted of seven clusters:
Linguistic understanding, language proficiency, text interpretation;
Research and method,
Interculturality, Nuance and Multi-Perspectivity;
Distilling and Synthesizing Information;
Communicative Skills & Attitude;
Social Engagement, Historical Background, Cultural Awareness; and
Importantly, each of these clusters contained detailed descriptions of skills, providing the level of detail and specificity that was missing in the answers of students in the first stage. To give an example, cluster four ‘Distilling and Synthesizing Information’ comprised skills such as ‘I can efficiently distill the essence from information in order to quickly get to the heart of the matter’, ‘I can recognize structures as well as apply them in a text’.
What about the rest of Europe? ASSET-H’s large-scale skills perception research
The self-perception survey devised in that pilot phase in Leuven was context-dependent, in the sense that it was built bottom-up by and for the student audience at the Faculty of Arts at KU Leuven. To make it ready for the large-scale European skills research performed together with Leiden and Helsinki in the ASSET-H project, the survey was reviewed and optimized by all partners together with their stakeholder boards, while keeping the same level of detail and specificity as described above. It was then carried out among 1306 Humanities students and a control group of 231 non-Humanities students in the three participating European countries, Belgium, Finland and The Netherlands. Again, the students answers were analysed quantitatively. This analysis reveals a skills profile of six clusters of skills which can be grouped around 6 domains:
Knowledge: Humanities students treat and manage information and knowledge in an expert way in a four-step process: (1) find the right information to solve a problem; (2) reflect on it distilling the abstract from the concrete; (3) synthesize it reducing large sets of information to the essence; (4) formulate findings in the most suitable way
Communication: Excellent communication skills enable Humanities students to collaborate and lead.
Language: Humanities students are proficient in language through their profound insight in the workings of languages.
Project: Excellent organisational skills enable Humanities students to complete projects successfully and timely.
Creativity: Humanities students have an artistic side and thus have a knack for coming up with new and innovative ideas.
Interculturality: Humanities students cultivate open-mindedness and empathy through in-depth reflection.
The outcome of this research phase in the ASSET-H project is both successful and exciting in two ways. Firstly, the analyses reveal a skills profile that differentiates the group of Humanities students from the control group of Pedagogy students. This is remarkable, as pedagogy programmes are often organized in close collaboration with Humanities programmes and attract student audiences that are not that different. The ASSET-H profile thus goes into enough detail to capture not an overall academic students’ skills profile, but a skills profile that is truly specific to the Humanities. Secondly, the profile shows stability over the different institutions: the results for each three countries are remarkably alike. This of course strengthens the idea of a shared Humanities identity – an identity that is not context-bound, but applies to Humanities students throughout Europe.
Earlier research indicates that students’ perceptions of and their ability to communicate about their skills greatly determine the quality of their transition to the labour market, and from our pilot phase we learned that Humanities students find it difficult to spontaneously describe their own skills. It is thus high time to put this newly created skills profile to work!
ASSET-H will target two groups: our teaching staff and our students. We want to get teaching staff in our institutions acquainted with the profile, so that they can make their skills training more explicit and help students to become more aware of their own skills. Of course, reaching out to Humanities students directly is of crucial importance too. For this, we will come up with tools for our students to familiarize them with the Humanities skills profile and gauge how their own individual profile relates to it. What is your unique humanities skill set? Follow us to stay up to date!