Widening the Graduate Attribute Debate: a Higher Education for Global Citizenship



There is more to life than simply doing a job. The graduates of our higher education system will be more than employees/employers, they will also be future leaders in our world and our neighbours and so affect our lives at all levels. What do we want these people to be like? This paper considers the idea of educating global citizens and offers suggestions for possible graduate attributes, such as being responsible, capable, compassionate, self-aware, ecoliterate, cosmopolitan and employed. It also asks if graduate attributes referring to ‘good citizens’ and ‘ethics’ are all culturally bound and thereby impositional.

Martin Haigh and Dr Valerie Clifford 


The current literature on graduate attributes covers a wide range of intentions from the narrow and mechanistic to the holistic and spiritual. Much literature talks about producing people who are trained with special skills to do particular jobs (‘specifists’),  but more literature describes the development of people who possess the personal transferable skills that will be needed by employers, especially the ability to learn, cope and adapt to change (‘generalists’) (Green, Hammer & Star, 2009). For example, in Australia, the Government recognises eight key graduate competencies: 1. finding and using information; 2. communicating; 3. planning and organising; 4. working with others and in teams; 5. numeracy; 6. problem solving; 7. using technology; and 8. ‘using cultural understandings’ (MCEETYA, 1996). In Britain, recent Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) documents follow a similar path (QAA (Scotland), 2007). See Table 1 below. The goal is to produce graduates who can make informed judgements in an employment context and develop the capabilities that make the difference between their being good and indifferent employees (Down, Martin, Hager & Bricknell, 1999; Hager & Holland, 2006).

Undergraduate Attributes
Critical understanding
Informed by current developments in the subject
An awareness of the provisional nature of knowledge, how knowledge is created, advanced and renewed, and the excitement of changing knowledge
The ability to identify and analyse problems and issues and to formulate, evaluate and apply evidence based solutions and arguments
An ability to apply a systematic and critical assessment of complex problems and issues
An ability to deploy techniques of analysis and enquiry
Familiarity with advanced techniques and skills
Originality and creativity in formulating, evaluating and applying evidence-based solutions and arguments
An understanding of the need for a high level of ethical, social, cultural, environmental and wider professional conduct.
Master’s Attributes   Conceptual understanding that enables critical evaluation of current research and advanced scholarship
Originality in the application of knowledge
The ability to deal with complex issues and make sound judgments in the absence of complete data.

Table 1. QAA conceives Graduate Attributes purely in terms of Employment (QAA (Scotland), 2007).

However, many educators believe that there is more to life than simply doing a job. In 1898, when Swami Vivekananda was asked what he thought was the defect in the university system, he replied ‘It is almost wholly one of defects. Why it is nothing but a perfect machine for turning out clerks’ (Vivekananda, 1989, p. 364). At Brookes, as elsewhere, we still dream of producing the clerks of the computer age – graduates who are able to handle multiple and diverse information sources and media, and to proficiently mediate their interactions with social and professional groups using digital technologies (Benfield & Francis, 2008; Green et al., 2009). However, we also hope that they will reflect on, record and manage their lifelong learning and that they ‘should be self-regulating citizens in a globally connected society’ (Benfield & Francis, 2008, p. 1).

In the UK, the intention of developing good citizens is demonstrated in the Crick Report, which, worried about social alienation and anti-social behaviour, proposed education for citizenship: ‘To make secure and to increase the knowledge, skills and values relevant to the nature and practices of participative democracy; also to enhance the awareness of rights and duties, and the sense of responsibilities needed for the development of … active citizens…[with] involvement in the local and wider community’ (QCA, 1998, p. 40). Such ideas turned Citizenship Education into a UK National Curriculum agenda that sought to help learners become informed citizens, capable of enquiry and communication and inclined towards participation and responsible action.

Of course, the problem with the concept of citizenship is both that it is hugely contested and that, in most definitions, it is hopelessly divisive – separating an ‘Us’ from an excluded ‘Other’ – as has been the case since Ancient Greece (Heater, 2004). This has always caused proponents some intellectual discomfort. Hence, the UK Parliament asserts that citizenship should be about informed participation and ‘should emphasise the way in which those values connect to universal human rights, and recognise that critical and divergent perspectives, as well as the potential to have alternative and different layers of identity, are a central part of what contemporary Britishness is’ (House of Commons Education and Skills Committee, 2007, p. 3). Rabindranath Tagore’s way of countering this inherent chauvinism was to propose the concept of Planetary Citizenship, which he developed as a way of dissolving ‘otherness’ (Tagore, 2008). In this version, citizenship is better conceived as cosmopolitanism, which ‘at least in its stronger versions, encourages us to rise above what Virginia Woolf called “unreal loyalties” – that is, particularist affiliations, allegiances or identities…[in favour of] real, universal loyalties to all Humanity’ (Donald, 2007, p. 290). Nussbaum (2007) identifies the attributes of a cosmopolitan world citizen as the capacity for self-criticism and critical thought about one’s own traditions, and the ability both to see oneself as a member of a heterogeneous nation and world and to imagine sympathetically the lives of people different from oneself.  Deep Ecologists, along with some religious groups such as the Jains and Vaishnavas, would like to extend this compassion further, to encompass all living creatures and the whole of the living world system (Haigh, 2006).  

Clearly, graduate attributes are about more than just skills and competencies, they are about developing people that live well with the world and, as such, they express the belief that an educated person should possess ‘certain kinds of human dispositions and qualities’ (Barnett, 2006, p. 61). UNESCO’s Delors Commission’s Four Pillars of Learning inculcates some of these dispositions, which include: the ability not only to comprehend the world but also to rejoice in understanding, knowledge and discovery; to interact constructively with people and problems and to innovate; to live together with other people, engage in common projects and appreciate the interdependence and value of all beings; and learning to be through the integral development of mind, body, intelligence, sensitivity, aesthetic appreciation and spirituality (Delors, 1996). In India, the Chavan Committee on Value-Based Education finds five objectives of education (knowledge, skill, balance, vision and identity)and feeds them into the development of five domains of human personality (intellectual, physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual) (Chavan et al.,1999). Increasingly, these later domains are being deemed worthy of attention. Development of the human personality and a ‘good character’ has also been a focus for India’s Neovedanta Educational thought (Sharma, 2002). This has emphasised building skills that include memory, reasoning, concentration, will-power, plasticity – the ability to reclassify and reorganize understandings – and good character born of good habits, with the aim of producing capable well-balanced, self-aware and thoughtful people (Mohanty, 2007).

Our vision

So, questions about Graduate Attributes resolve to what we want our future leaders and neighbours — not just employees –to be like, because these people will emerge from tomorrow’s graduates and affect our lives.. Probably, we want them to be the best people they can be; good for themselves, good for other people (not least ourselves) and good for the planet (Boyd et al., 2008). We would like them to be able to solve the problems of the future, to care for those who cannot care for themselves, to defend the social values that we believe in, to protect the environment for those who will follow and to help set our world on a sustainable course. The authors’ vision is set out in Table 2. Please note that employability remains, at the foot of the table, but that this emphasises whole-person qualities.

Graduate Attributes Associated Abilities and Skills
Responsible Citizens Graduates are aware of their personal responsibilities to the future wellbeing of society and environment – most especially to the welfare of future generations Council of Europe’s Campaign for Education for Democratic Citizenship and the United Nation’s ‘DESD’ –Decade of Education for Sustainable Development 2005-2014).
Capable Citizens Graduates are able to do as well as to know. They have skills in problem solving and communication – including advocacy, negotiation and leadership – that can be applied broadly as well as to any particular disciplinary expertise
Compassionate Citizens Graduates are schooled in applied ethics and demonstrate a capacity of empathy for others (EQ) so that they are able to treat all of their interactions with both sensitivity and compassion. They are schooled in, and sensitive to, the challenges of providing social justice and equity.
Self-aware Citizens Graduates are reflective practitioners in all of their activities. To achieve this, in addition to the above, they have taken opportunities to direct their focus inward in order to understand their own personal attributes, capabilities, weaknesses, strengths, limitations and, especially, their personal goals and priorities.
Ecoliterate Citizens Sustainability is the greatest challenge facing human society and as (then UN Secretary General) Kofi Annan remarked in his famous Dhaka speech of 2001, the challenge is to take an abstract concept like sustainable development and make it a reality for all of the world’s people. Quite simply, it is hoped that graduates will lead and set a good example and that ALL learners have a sufficient personal understanding of the environmental processes and issues involved.
Cosmopolitan Citizens Graduates should be capable of functioning effectively, flexibly and constructively in an inter-cultural/global environment. They are capable of conceiving themselves as part of humanity and placing this fact above being a member of any particular nation, class, clan or family. They are socially responsible, they value equity, and they are  sensitive to other people’s cultures and belief systems and act accordingly. They have a basic understanding of the character of some of these cultures and belief systems and are open to learning about others.
Employed Citizens Graduates should be capable of making a contribution to society through earning a living. They are equipped with skills and attributes that society needs.

Table 2. Graduate Attributes

Of course, the issue of graduate employment remains one that is of some unusual interest. The next table looks at some of the career related aspects that should be developed in the context of the wider goals outlined above.

Graduate Skills & Employability A graduate can:
Retrieve and manage information and knowledge. A graduate can identify, retrieve, evaluate and apply relevant information and current technologies to advance understanding, solve problems and complete work tasks creatively. Has the technical skills needed for the effective execution of tasks.
Get Results A Graduate can plan projects, organise resources, solve problems and communicate findings effectively and efficiently. Can apply logical and critical thinking to problems across a range of disciplinary settings and apply the personal skills that contribute to learning, problem solving and producing high quality outcomes to schedule.
Think Creatively and Innovate A graduate can conceive of imaginative and innovative responses to challenges and anticipate future demands by planning ahead. Can apply lateral, global and holistic thinking (ie. thinking ‘outside the box’) as well as focused and analytical thinking. Can demonstrate the personal initiative and enterprise, planning and organisational skills that contribute to innovative outcomes.
Demonstrate Expertise in their Special Discipline(s) A graduate can understand the chief theoretical and technical concepts of their discipline(s) and place these in their contexts. Can also demonstrate the (ethical) understanding and learning skills that enable ongoing improvement – professional and personal development.
Communicate A graduate is skilled and practiced in spoken, visual and written communication, and demonstrates effective listening skills as well as numerical, technical and graphic communication skills.  Also knows how to communicate, effectively and sensitively, in inter-generational and other-cultural contexts.
Work in a Team A graduate is a skilled and practiced team-worker, understand the processes of and has developed a a capacity for effective collaboration and co-operation within agreed frameworks, including the demands of inter-generational, gender and cross-cultural sensitivity, mutual respect for others, conflict resolution and the negotiation of constructive and productive results.
Act as an effective leader or manager A graduate can take control and lead a team effectively, sensitively and constructively demonstrating initiative and taking and accepting responsibility, taking action and engaging others towards achieving common goal.
Develop autonomously A graduate is an autonomous learner and self-developer, committed to improving and updating their personal and inter-personal skills, who is capable of learning from experience and honing their personal attributes and capabilities through better self-management.
Committed to quality and social justice. A graduate is someone who wants to be the best they can be as a good citizen (see above), is ethically aware, compassionate and also committed to doing the best that can be done in any given circumstance or task.
Adapt to Change A graduate is someone who can manage change and deal with novel or unexpected circumstances and situations and who can thrive in an environment that includes diversity, challenge, and unpredictability.
Learn from Experience A graduate is a reflective practitioner that treats each activity as a learning experience, who is capable of reflecting upon this experience from a variety of ethical and practical perspectives, and who is capable of revising their behaviour iteratively on the basis of the feedback they receive both from their own reflections and advice received from others.

Table 3. Graduate Skills & Employability

Graduate attributes in the disciplines

In offering these ideas of what graduates attributes might look like, we are aware that disciplines are based in different ontologies and epistemologies that lead to a range of beliefs about the certainty/uncertainty of knowledge and how to explore/critique that knowledge, and that there is a debate about the generic-ness of generic attributes.

Simon Barrie (2006) described academics as having four beliefs about graduate attributes which affected how they responded to moves to include graduate attributes in curriculum reform. The beliefs were:

  1. Precursor conception. This is where students come to university with generic graduate attributes and discipline knowledge is added to these attributes. Any graduate attribute work is remedial only and done outside the formal discipline curriculum.
  2. Complement conception. Here generic graduate attributes are learnt as part of the disciplinary learning but are secondary to it. They add to the general abilities students bring to their studies and complement their disciplinary learning.
  3. Translation conception. Here there are discipline specific specialised skills that are essential to and in partnership in the application of disciplinary knowledge and on a par with disciplinary knowledge. They assist the translation and application of knowledge to unfamiliar settings, so changing the product of their learning. To quote one of Barrie’s respondents:

    If a student can’t exercise abilities like ethical judgement and creativity, and balance these against scientific method in their research then they are not professional scientists! (p.22).

  4. Enabling conception. Graduate attributes are the abilities and aptitudes that lie at the heart of their scholarly learning and knowledge; they have the potential to transform that knowledge and to support the creation of new knowledge. The graduate attributes are interwoven with disciplinary knowledge and are longer lasting. They provide a framework that enables graduates to acquire and shape new knowledge as required, even in the context of other disciplines. Generic attributes are key to inquiry and learning in many aspects of life, not just formal learning. They are about intellectual and personal development.

Despite the differences in disciplinary beliefs about knowledge, Barrie found a variety of conceptions held within the disciplines, indicating that other factors were affecting the academics understanding of the nature of graduate attributes. However, how academics view graduate attributes in relation to disciplinary knowledge will affect their response to calls for curriculum reform. Academics who see graduate attributes as sitting outside disciplinary knowledge will see the inclusion of graduate attributes in the curriculum as impositional and time consuming and unlikely to be tolerated.  Green et al. (2009) also draw our attention to the institutional cultural change that may be required to implement a graduate attribute agenda and to encourage and support academics in this area.

Values in Higher Education

Another aspect of the graduate attributes that we are proposing is their value-laden nature. We are advocating values of social justice, equity and social responsibility, and believe that working for the sustainability of the planet is vital. We also believe that becoming reflective practitioners will lead to life-long learning and improvement. While we would like to believe that these are universal values, we recognise that they are not and, as such, could prove problematic in an educational context. However, as critical inquiry appears to be an accepted tenet of higher education, asking students to critically explore their own values and their origins and to engage in scholarly enquiry into other value systems, is a credible intellectual exercise.  We must also be prepared to allow students to reach their own conclusions about their future values.

Debates of this nature need to be facilitated sensitively by staff who make it clear that intellectual discussion involves trying out ideas and seeing how they fit in a variety of contexts and with different theories. Inexperienced staff can be fearful of accusations of racism, colonialism and imperialism if they open up some of these debates and may need assistance to develop skills in facilitating sensitive forums.


This paper has offered a vision of global citizenship and possible associated graduate attributes. While universities are moving to the development of concepts of ‘graduate attributeness’ for their students, the willingness of academics to engage in this type of curriculum reform is seen to be affected by their beliefs about graduate attributes. The value-laden nature of this debate is challenging, and it is recognised that staff will need to develop facilitation skills in order to engage students in these debates.

Note: This article has previously appeared in the Trigger Papers of the Centre for International Curriculum Inquiry and Networking Conference June 2009 Internationalising the Home Student, held at Oxford Brookes University.


Martin Haigh is Professor of Geography and University Teaching Fellow at Oxford Brookes University, England. Formerly, he taught at the Universities of Chicago, Oklahoma and Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. For many years, he worked on environmental reconstruction after road and mining development, especially in headwater regions and, until 2005, was a leader of the Soil and Water Conservation profession. He is presently editor of the Journal of Geography in Higher Education and recently became the 20th appointed Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy in the UK.

Dr Valerie Clifford is Deputy Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development and Director of the Centre for International Curriculum Inquiry and Networking at Oxford Brookes University. She has previously worked at Monash University in Australia, the University of the South Pacific in Fiji and Otago University in New Zealand. Her interests are in internationalising the curriculum and research supervision.


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