Reframing the Discourse:
a Graduate Capability Framework for Macquarie
Macquarie University staff are already very familiar with the generic skills agenda, having first engaged with the
notion of assisting students to develop such skills in the 1990’s. Since then there have been a number of
attempts to support academics to embed skills development within their programs alongside knowledge
acquisition, with the ultimate goal of producing graduates with particular characteristics (MQ Teaching and
Learning Plan 2006 p.4). Despite such efforts, knowledge development often remains the major goal of the
curriculum, with skills development seen as something to be addressed in addition to real learning. It is not
uncommon therefore for Macquarie programs to be content-driven, incorporating a fragmented approach to skills
development, resulting in the separation of “personal skills development from the acquisition of specialist
knowledge” (Stephenson, 1998, p.7).
Skills, Attributes or Capabilities
Within Australia the terminology underpinning the ‘skills agenda’ is used loosely (Barrie & Jones, 1999), with
the terms generic/core/key/transferable competences, skills, attributes or capabilities used interchangeably
(Jones, 2001). For the purposes of this discussion paper, the following definitions will be used:
Skill proficiency or dexterity acquired / developed through training or experience.
Attribute a quality or characteristic inherent in or ascribed to someone or something.
Learning the act, process, or experience of gaining knowledge or skill.
Knowledge acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation.
Competency the quality of being adequately or well qualified.
Capacity innate potential for growth, development, or accomplishment.
Capability the ability to perform actions, the sum of expertise and capacity. “Capability is
what we are actually free to be and do.” (Walker, 2006).
The concept of Capability was first developed by an Indian economist, Amartya Sen over 25 years ago. He
proposed that a capability is the capacity or potential to function in a certain way. Hence as John Stephenson
(1998) suggests, capability is a much broader concept than skills and attributes or competencies, rather it is about
‘fitness for specified purpose’. Capable people:
“…not only know about their specialisms; they also have the confidence to apply their
knowledge and skills within varied and changing situations and to continue to develop
their specialist knowledge and skills long after they have left formal education…Taking
effective and appropriate action within unfamiliar and changing circumstances involves
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ethics, judgements, the self-confidence to take risks and a commitment to learn from the
experience.” (ibid, p.3)
Such human beings have the ability to integrate knowledge, skills, personal qualities and understanding in their
personal and professional lives. They are capable human beings and their capability can be observed by their
confidence and ability to:
• take effective and appropriate action;
• explain what they are about;
• live and work effectively with others; and
• continue to learn from their experiences as individuals and in associate with others, in a diverse and
changing society (Stephenson, 1992).
Sen (1979) proposes that a capability also points to potentialities and possibilities rather than just outcomes that
can be defined in advance. Capability therefore, “is what we are actually free to be and do”. (Walker, 2006,
The Capability Approach to Curriculum Renewal
The capability approach foregrounds human development, agency, well-being and freedom, and with respect to
curriculum renewal as proposed here, it poses the following questions (Hinchliffe, ___):
• Is higher education only concerned with learning or is it also concerned with developing a range of
capabilities in its students?
• Is there a ‘capability set’ that each student should develop, and / or should students be encouraged to
develop their own capability set within certain broad guidelines?
• Can these be developed through teaching and learning and the curriculum?
• How do we know that our students have valuable capabilities unless they are given opportunities to
function and use these capabilities in educational situations?
The first step in answering such questions is to engage the academic community in their discussion. This paper
seeks to provide a background to the capability approach, and stimulate the community to imagine and redefine
the characteristics of its future ‘ideal graduates’. The appendices provide examples of two different lists of
capabilities – one constructed by a theorist in this area, Melanie Walker (Appendix 1), and the second is the
framework (graduate attributes) adopted by the University of Sydney (Appendix 2). Macquarie will develop its
own unique list of capabilities which can then be interpreted with respect to its component knowledge and skills,
and the discipline contexts within which this learning takes place, but these appendices provide a landscape for
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Appendix 1: Sample List of Capabilties (Walker, 2006, pp.128-129)
1. practical reason Being able to make well-reasoned, informed, critical, independent,
intellectually acute, socially responsible, and reflective choices. Being able
to construct a personal life project in an uncertain world. Having good
2. educational resilience Able to navigate study, work and life. Able to negotiate risk, to persevere
academically, to be responsive to educational opportunities and adaptive to
constraints. Self-reliant. Having aspirations and hopes for a good future.
3. knowledge and Being able to gain knowledge of a chosen subject – disciplinary and/or
imagination professional – its form of academic inquiry and standards. Being able to use
critical thinking and imagination to comprehend the perspectives of multiple
others and to form impartial judgements. Being able to debate complex
issues. Being able to acquire knowledge for pleasure and personal
development, for career and economic opportunities, for political, cultural
and social action and participation in the world. Awareness of ethical
debates and moral issues. Open-mindedness. Knowledge to understand
science and technology in public policy.
4. learning disposition Being able to have curiosity and a desire for learning. Having confidence in
one’s ability to learn. Being an active inquirer.
5. social relations and Being able to participate in a group for learning, working with others to
social networks solve problems and tasks. Being able to work with others to form effective
or good groups for collaborative and participatory learning. Being able to
form networks of friendship and belonging for learning support and leisure.
6. respect, dignity and Being able to have respect for oneself and for and from others, being treated
recognition with dignity, not being diminished or devalued because of one’s gender,
social class, religion or race, valuing other languages, other religions and
spiritual practices and human diversity. Being able to show empathy,
compassion, fairness and generosity, listening to and considering other
person’s points of view in dialogue and debate. Being able to act inclusively
and being able to respond to human need. Having competence in inter-
cultural communication. Having a voice to participate effectively in
learning; a voice to speak out, to debate and persuade; to be able to listen.
7. emotional integrity, Not being subject to anxiety or fear which diminishes learning. Being able
emotions to develop emotions for imagination, understanding, empathy, awareness
8. bodily integrity Safety and freedom from all forms of physical and verbal harassment in the
higher education environment.
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Appendix 2: Sample List of Attributes: University of Sydney
The Sydney University graduate attributes policy specifies two
levels of attributes.
There are three overarching graduate attributes which reflect
the research intensive nature of the University, its scholarly
values in relation to research-led teaching, and the place of its
graduates in a global society.–
Scholarship: Graduates of the university will have a scholarly attitude to knowledge and
understanding. As scholars, the university’s graduates will be leaders in the
An attitude or stance towards
production of new knowledge and understanding through inquiry, critique and
synthesis. They will be able to apply their knowledge to solve consequential
problems and communicate their knowledge confidently and effectively.
Lifelong Learning: Graduates of the university will be lifelong learners committed to and capable
of continuous learning and reflection for the purpose of furthering their
An attitude or stance towards
understanding of the world and their place in it.
Global Citizenship: Graduates of the university will be global citizens, who will aspire to
contribute to society in a full and meaningful way through their roles as
An attitude or stance towards
members of local, national and global communities.
These overarching attributes represent combinations of five clusters of more specific attributes, which can be
interpreted or contextualised differently in different disciplinary domains:
Information Literacy Graduates will be able to use information effectively in a range of contexts.
Personal and Intellectual Graduates will be able to work independently and sustainably, in a way that
Autonomy, is informed by openness, curiosity and a desire to meet new challenges.
Communication Graduates will use and value communication as a tool for negotiating and
creating new understanding, interacting with others, and furthering their own
Ethical, Social and Graduates will hold personal values and beliefs consistent with their role as
Professional responsible members of local, national, international and professional
Research and Inquiry Graduates will be able to create new knowledge and understanding through
the process of research and inquiry.
These are in turn supported by generic foundation skills and abilities underpinned by basic competencies, which
might be interpreted differently in different disciplines and domains.
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