Practice Note 3: Writing a graduate profile – the industry training organisation experience

February 2012: Graduate profiles are at the heart of the qualifications reforms now being implemented under the reviews of qualifications for listing on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework NZQF).

To a large extent, graduate profiles will be the primary measure of the effectiveness of qualifications. It is important to take the time to get them right.

The 2009 targeted review of non-university tertiary certificate and degree qualifications aimed to ensure that qualifications are relevant to the needs of learners, employers and other stakeholders.

One of the key recommendations was that qualification outcome statements (which cover the graduate profile and further education and employment pathways) be strengthened and standardised. This is to make qualifications easier to understand and to compare.

InfraTrain looks at trenching

This practice note draws on the experience of InfraTrain, the industry training organisation for infrastructure industries, and expands on information in the Guidelines for approval of qualifications at levels 1-6 for listing on the NZQF.

InfraTrain had two ‘road open trenching’ qualifications due for a planned review in 2010. They knew these qualifications contained inappropriate and expired unit standards. They decided to proceed with their own review under the new rules, recognising that the replacement qualification would still be included in the mandatory review when it happened.

InfraTrain Project Manager (Qualifications Development) Amanda Smidt has become a strong advocate for the new approach to qualifications. “It was pretty exciting once we clicked what it was about,” she says. “But understanding the real mindshift involved was painful and challenging.”

What is a graduate profile?

A good graduate profile provides a clear and easily understood picture of what a qualification can deliver for both employers and learners. When a new qualification is listed on the NZQF, anyone searching for information on the qualification should quickly be able to see what it is all about.

  • The graduate profile focuses on a graduate’s skills (the minimum level of what they can do), knowledge (what they must know) and attributes (what they are capable of being, e.g. working under supervision, working independently.
  • It is high level and flexible to accommodate changing needs or technologies.
  • It is written in plain English.
  • Statements about graduates are generally structured around three elements: verb/subject/context. Examples are: maintain/safety/on and around the excavation site; apply/industry best practice standards/from the start of the job to its completion.
  • Keep the verb direct and active, e.g. ‘prepare xx’, rather than ‘apply skills and knowledge to prepare xx’.
  • The graduate profile is a comprehensive role description of a graduate at a particular level. It provides an outline so that programme developers can work out what needs to be taught. It is neither a list of unit standard titles nor the programme description.
  • The role is described in terms of core functions or activities which are described meaningfully without itemising each step required to achieve the function.
  • The graduate profile provides the foundations for the development of the qualification specification and the conditions relating to specific outcomes.

Ensure all those with an interest in the qualification are involved

Prepare the ground with an open mind by ensuring the right people are at the table; that is, everyone involved with the industry the qualification serves. Go back to basics in addressing the purpose of the qualification: why is it needed? This will help shape the graduate profile.

InfraTrain’s ‘road opening trenching’ qualifications cover a wide range of industries, from telecommunications to electricity, gas and water. To review the qualifications, a diverse group was assembled, including representatives from local government and the Department of Labour.

Getting back to basics with this group meant that one of the first benefits delivered was a constructive redefinition of terms, which led to a new title for the qualification. Road open trenching quickly became ‘excavation and reinstatement’, in recognition that these industries need people who can safely dig trenches in any situation, whether urban road or rural paddock.

Don’t be afraid of robust discussion, says Smidt. “No matter how difficult or long-winded the exchange, it’s amazing what comes out in the end.”

Start with a skills analysis

At the initial stage, the qualification is not the focus. It is important to first analyse job roles and the skills required, as well as the level of responsibility of each role. Analysis of the qualifications should follow.

For InfraTrain, this analysis was the key to making progress. Smidt says that when developing the graduate profile, the group started by grouping unit standards together and listing these as the graduate outcomes. They then struggled with how to include outcomes that were ‘electives’. Once they went back to the skills required for the job, the way forward became clear again, and they were able to define the graduate profile.

The skills analysis also showed up gaps in the existing qualifications. For example, it is essential to be able to identify and protect existing services if excavations are to take place without incident. This aspect became an integral part of the profile of the new qualification.

Skills lead to qualifications, and the new qualification was intended to be the general qualification which could lead onto other, more specialist or supervisory certificates.

Look at the big picture – look at each qualification in relation to others

Where does this qualification fit in relation to others serving the needs of industry? What does the particular industry or community really need from this qualification?

What should someone with this qualification, at this level, be able to do, know and be? Try to create the suite of qualifications – the framework – first.

In summary:

  • Cut through the jargon, education or industry-speak to explain in plain English the qualification’s intent.
  • Don’t just dump in unit standard titles – they are not usually the right role functions. Good graduate profile outcomes come from the skills analysis.
  • Ask probing questions to get the real meaning of terms. For example, ‘what is quality’ – describe it specifically. ‘What will the graduate actually do as a result of identifying, describing and selecting a system?’
  • Expect new qualifications to look different to old ones.
  • Ensure the graduate profile is fully resolved before looking at details of qualification specification and the conditions (e.g. unit standards, courses) associated with each outcome in the graduate profile.
  • Ask whether the profile ensures that a prospective learner can clearly see and understand what they will know, do and be as a result of successfully completing the qualification.
  • Ask whether the profile ensures that an employer checking a qualification on the NZQF can clearly see and understand the level of knowledge, skills and attributes of a graduate of the qualification.


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