Competence and education

During the last decades competence has become very popular in education. Much of it had to do with the preparation of student for occupations and professions, or the labour market and society in general. Parallel to that, organisations, including Wageningen UR, introduced competence-management systems. International education development organisations also jumped on the bandwagon, and are exporting competence-based education models, leading to phrases like ‘we implement competence-based’, as shorthand for using principles of competence-based vocational or professional education. Even at university level, variations of competence-based education are being introduced.

When I came to Wageningen University, in 1998, asking around for what professional profiles educational programs were preparing, colleagues reacted as if I was cursing in the church. The general belief was that Wageningen programs had nothing to do with professions. Students were introduced in science domains, which was believed to be quite different. When I noted that massive educational programs at universities like law and medicine were also introducing students into science domains and preparing them for professions, I did not meet a lot of understanding.

Now, Wageningen University, like many others, are realising that sound scientific education and preparation for society can go hand. It is now fashionable to think about performance requirements which are set by employers and professions and to align educational programs along the lines of broad roles, of which becoming a researcher is only one. Engineer, Manager, Consultant, Policy Expert and Teacher are others.

Do we really need the word ‘competence’ to make educational programs relevant for society, and prepare graduates for a changing world, and to contribute to innovation and transformation? Not really. The Dutch competence-based qualification structure is being transformed into a job-oriented qualification structure. But the principles of formulating an education philosophy, developing a coherent curriculum design, and aligning educational programs to the needs of society remain important. Program objectives, curriculum content, the organisation of studies and the assessment of educational achievement are the core educational design components, and have to be considered in relationship to one another. Unfortunately many educational innovations or so-called improvements fail because there is one-sided attention to one of the core design components. Do we need competent graduates? Yes, of course. Why? Because having a professional license and being a good professional are not necessarily the same.

The complaints about competence-based education that were expressed during the last years are a bit paradoxical in this respect. The complaints were that the educational programs were having too few contact hours for students, that students were left alone, and that there was overreliance on self-regulation. Those program characteristics were however not an intrinsic element of the competence-based education philosophy. This philosophy was used to implement budget cuts in certain cases.

Recently more and more cases of lowering educational standards are revealed. Students received diplomas for educational programs of professional universities which were not really at the level of higher education. But, isn’t competence just the key issue here? Students should not only get a license, their educational institute has to warrant that their graduates are capable, have the expected and agreed level of expertise, and be able to perform according standards that are set. Intensified attention to exams and assessments as a result of the scandals of lowering program requirements is right. But as a result of that, educational objectives, content and organisation, including learning processes should also be scrutinized for level and coherence.

Then again, do we need the concept of competence? Given the issues raised here, I think yes, we need it. To warrant that graduates are really professional, and to provide educational technology to enable that. Besides, we cannot escape the notion of competence in education, as the European Union has integrated competence in the European Qualification Framework. Although, the way in which that was done creates as many questions as answers, but that is a whole other story.