Competences and learning outcomes: a panacea for understanding the (new) role of Higher Education?

  • Robert Wagenaar Tuning Academy, University of Groningen, Netherlands
Keywords: competenc(i)es, generic competences, subject specific competences, learning outcomes, transferable skills, subject specific skills


The competence and learning outcomes approach, which intends to improve effective performance of academic staff and students, is becoming dominant in today’s higher education. This was quite different 15 years ago. This contribution aims to offer insight in the reforms initiated and implemented, by posing and answering the questions why the time was appropriate — by identifying and analysing the underlying conditions — and in what way the change was shaped — by focusing on terminology required and approaches developed. Central here is the role the Tuning project — launched in 2000-2001 — played in this respect. The contribution starts with contextualising the situation in the 1990s: the recession and growing unemployment in many European countries on the one hand and the development of a global society and the challenges the higher educational sector faced at the other. It offers the background for initiating the Tuning project, and the discourse on which its approach is based. In particular, attention is given to choosing the concept of competences, distinguishing subject specific and general/generic ones, as an integrating approach of knowledge, understanding, skills, abilities and attitudes. The approach should serve as a means of integrating a number of main goals as part of the learning and teaching process: strengthening employability and preparing for citizenship besides personal development of the student as a basis for the required educational reform. Tuning’s unique contribution is the alignment of this concept to learning outcomes statements as indicators of competence development and achievement and by relating both concepts to profiling of educational programmes.

Published online: 4 July 2014


Download data is not yet available.

Author Biography

Robert Wagenaar, Tuning Academy, University of Groningen, Netherlands

Robert Wagenaar is a historian and at present director of undergraduate and graduate studies at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. He is also Joint Director of the Tuning Academy, located in Bilbao (Spain) and Groningen; and a member of the Editorial Board of Tuning Journal for Higher Education (TJHE). He is an external expert on Higher Education for the European Commission and has been involved in main initiatives to harmonise European Higher Education, such as the development of a European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) since 1988 and the Qualifications Framework for the European Higher Education Area and a European Qualifications Framework for LLL. He also chairs the Dutch team of experts for the implementation of the ‘Bologna Process’ in Dutch Higher Education institutions. Together with Julia Gonzalez (University of Deusto, Bilbao, Spain), Wagenaar elaborated, designed and coordinates the large-scale innovative project Tuning Educational Structures in the World.


Arguelles, A., and A. Gonczi, A. Competency Based Education and Training: a world perspective. Mexico: Editorial Limusa S.A. de CV and Grupo Noriega Editores, 2000.

Association of American Colleges. “Integrity in the college curriculum: a report to the academic community: the findings and recommendations of the Project on Redefining the Meaning and Purpose of Baccalaureate Degrees.” Washington, DC., 1985.

Barr, Robert B, and John Tagg. “From Teaching to Learning. A new paradigm for undergraduate education.” Change. The Magazine for Higher Education 27, no. 6 (November/December 1995): 13-25.

Beneitone, Pablo, Julia González, and Robert Wagenaar, eds. Meta-perfiles y perfiles. Una nueva aproximación para las titulaciones en América Latina. Bilbao: University of Deusto Press, 2014.

Biggs, J. Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does. Buckingham: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, 1999.

_____. Teaching for Quality Learning in Universities. Maidenhead, 1999.

_____. “What the Student Does: teaching for enhanced learning” Higher Education Research & Development 18, no. 1 (1999): 57-75.

_____., and K. Collis. Evaluating the Quality of Learning: the SOLO taxonomy. New York: Academic Press, 1982.

Bloom, B.S., M.D. Engelhart, E.J. Furst, W.H. Hill, and D.R. Krathwohl. Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: the classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company, 1956.

Eraut, M. Developing Professional Knowledge and Competence. London: Routledge, 1994.

European Commission. “European Qualifications Framework (EQF).”

_____. “Teaching and Learning: Towards the Learning Society”. White Paper on Education and Training. Luxembourg, European Commission, 1996.

European Ministers for Higher Education. “Joint declaration of the European Ministers of Education.” Bologna 19 June 1999.

_____. “ ‘Realising the European Higher Education Area’: Communiqué of the Conference of Ministers Responsible for Higher Education in Berlin on 19 September 2003 [Berlin Communiqué].” Berlin: Bologna-Berlin2003 Project Team, 2003.

Guskin, Alan E. “Reducing Student Costs and Enhancing Student Learning. The University Challenge of the 90’s — Part II: Restructuring the Role of Faculty.” Change, The Magazine for Higher Education 26, no. 5 (September/October 1994): 16-25.

Hager, P. “Some Conceptual Questions about the Tuning Project.” Prospero 12, no. 1 (2006).

Hyland, Terry .“Swimming against the tide: reductionist behaviourism in the harmonisation of European higher education systems.” Prospero 12, no. 1 (2006).

Hodkinson, P., and Issitt, M.. The challenge of competence. London: Cassell, 1995.

Hutmacher, Walo. “Key Competencies in Europe.” European Journal for Higher Education, 32, no. 1 (1997).

Klemp, G.O. “The assessment of Occupational Competence. Report to the National Institute of Education.” Washington, 1980.

Kothik, Rudi. “Process Oriented Teacher Education as an Alternative to the Competence-Based Approach to Education and Training”. In Curating the European University. Exposition and Debate, edited by M. Simons, a.o., 73-80. Leuven: University Press, 2011.

McClelland, D.C. “Testing for Competence Rather Than for Intelligence.” American Psychologist 28, no. 1 (January 1973): 423-447.

“Meeting of the OECD Education Ministers, Paris 3-4 April 2001; Investing in Competencies for all (Communiqué).”

Mulder, M., T. Weigel, and K. Collins, “The concept of competence concept in the development of vocational education and training in selected EU member states. A critical analysis.” Journal of Vocational Education and Training 59, no.1 (2006): 65-85.

National Institute of Education (ED). “Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of American Higher Education. Final Report of the Study Group on the Conditions of Excellence in American Higher Education.” Washington, DC., October 1984.

Norris, N. “The trouble with competence.” Cambridge Journal of Education 21, nº 3 (1991): 331-341.

OECD. “Definition and Selection of Competencies: Theoretical and Conceptual Foundations (DeSeCo). Bakground paper.” Revised December 2001.

_____. “The Definition and Selection of Key Competencies.” Executive Summary.

Parry, S.R. “The Quest for Competence.” Training Magazine (July 1996): 48-56.

Radelet, Steven, and Jeffrey Sachs. “The Onset of the East Asian Financial Crisis.” Harvard Institute for International Development, 30 March 1998. paper27.pdf.

Rychen, Dominique S., and Laura H. Salganik, eds. Defining and Selecting Key Competencies. Göttingen, 2001.

Scott, Peter. The Meanings of Mass Higher Education, Buckingham: Open University, 1995.

Schlusmans, K., R. Slotman, C. Nagtegaal and G. Kinkhorst, G. “Competentiegerichte leeromgevingen.” Utrecht: Lemma B.V., 1999.

Serrano, Rosario Mérida, Julia Angulo Romero, Manuel Jurado Bolo and José Diz Pérez. “Student Training in Transversal Competences at the University of Cordoba.” European Educational Research Journal 10, nº 1 (2011): 34-52.

Spencer, L.M., and S.M Spencer. Competence at Work: Models for Superior Performance. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1994.

Sultana, Ronald G. “Competence and competence frameworks in career guidance: complex and contested concepts.” International Journal for Educational and Vocational Guidance 9, no. 1 (2009): 15-30.

Tagg, John. The Learning Paradigm College. Bolton, MA, USA: Anker Publishing Company, 2003.

Tuning Educational Structures in Europe, Final Report. Pilot Project — Phase 1. Bilbao and Groningen: University of Deusto Press, 2003.

_____. (Tuning Europe).

_____. Tuning SQFs for the Humanities and the Arts. Final Report 2010-2011. Bilbao, 2012:

_____. “Tuning SQF for the Social Sciences.” Final Report 2008 — 2009. Bilbao: University of Deusto, 2012:

Van den Bosch, H., and R. Gerritsen. “Het verwerven van conceptuele competentie als doelstelling van wetenschappelijk onderwijs.” Tijdschrift Voor Het Hoger Onderwijs 15 (1997): 365-389.

Van de Wiel, Iris. “The Russian Crisis 1998. Economic Report.” Economic Report, Rabobank, Economic Research Department, September 16, 2013.

Villa Sánchez, Aurelio, and Manuel Poblete Ruiz, eds. Competence-based learning. A proposal for the assessment of generic competences. Bilbao: University of Deusto Press, 2008.

Westera, W. “Competences in education: A confusion of tongues.” Journal of Curriculum Studies 33, nº 1 (2001): 75-88.

Winterton, Jonathan, Françoise Delamare - Le Deist, and Emma Stringfellow. Typology of knowledge, skills and competences: clarification of the concept and prototype. Cedefop Reference series; 64. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2006.

World Bank. “Country Note F. Lessons and Controversies From Financial Crises in the 1990s.” In Economic Growth in the 1990s: Learning from a Decade of Reform, World Bank, 242-251. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group, 2005.

How to Cite
Wagenaar, Robert. 2014. “Competences and Learning Outcomes: A Panacea for Understanding the (new) Role of Higher Education?”. Tuning Journal for Higher Education 1 (2), 279-302.