Fostering social and personal competencies in higher education

The ETH Competence Framework case


  • Barbara La Cara ETH Zurich
  • Michèle Gemünden
  • Barbara Koch-Kiennast



We describe the implementation of a competence framework comprising social and personal competencies and traditional subject- and method-specific competencies at ETH Zurich. We use mixed data to document the university's need for the framework. We find the incorporation of different perspectives about competencies pivotal for developing the framework, while joint information-sharing and competence-building enable the implementation of the framework within the university's services and educational offers. Our paper contributes to the debate in higher education on why and how universities change to prepare future-ready graduates. First, it elucidates the competencies becoming increasingly crucial for future graduates and how to conceptualise them. Second, it leverages examples showing how to promote a holistic set of competencies within the university, including the student support service, among more traditional implementation levels like degree programmes or courses.


Abelha, M., Fernandes, S., Mesquita, D., Seabra, F., & Ferreira-Oliveira, A. T. (2020). Graduate employability and competence development in higher education—A systematic literature review using PRISMA. Sustainability, 12(15), 5900.

Adler, P. S., & Borys, B. (1996). Two types of bureaucracy: Enabling and coercive. Administrative science quarterly, 61-89.

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., Airasian, P. W., Cruikshank, K. A., Mayer, R. E., Pintrich, P. R., ... & Wittrock, M. C. (2013). A Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: Pearson New International Edition: A Revision of Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Abridged Edition. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Bailey, C. P., Minderhout, V., & Loertscher, J. (2012). Learning transferable skills in large lecture halls: Implementing a POGIL approach in biochemistry. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 40(1), 1-7.

Brall, S. (2009). Überfachliche Kompetenzanforderungen in den Ingenieurwissenschaften. Eine Literaturanalyse.(RWTH Aachen University) Aachen.

Child, S. F., & Shaw, S. D. (2020). A purpose-led approach towards the development of competency frameworks. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 44(8), 1143-1156.

Cimatti, B. (2016). Definition, development, assessment of soft skills and their role for the quality of organisations and enterprises. International Journal for quality research, 10(1), 97.

Cohen, P. A. (1981). Student ratings of instruction and student achievement: A meta-analysis of multisection validity studies. Review of educational Research, 51(3), 281-309.

Deloitte (2015). Mind the gaps. The 2015 Deloitte Millennial survey.

Flick, U. (Ed.). (2013). The SAGE handbook of qualitative data analysis. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

Hagmann, J., Almekinders, C. J. M., Bukenya, C., Guevara, F., & Halemichael, A. (2003). Developing soft skills in higher education. PLA notes, 48, 21-25.

Hansmann, R., Jödicke, A., Brändle, U., Guhl, D., & Frischknecht, P. (2019). How the Bologna reform influenced learning outcomes: Analysis of perceived qualifications and professional requirements of environmental sciences graduates. Studies in Higher Education, 44(6), 1004-1022.

Jödicke, A., Hansmann, R., Brändle, U., Guhl, D. & Frischknecht. P. (2016). Umweltnaturwissenschaften: Vom Studium zum Beruf, Ergebnisse der Absolvent(inn)enbefragungen 2009 bis 2013 der Abschlussjahrgänge 2008 bis 2012 (Master und Doktorat). Zurich: D-USYS ETH Zurich.

Kantrowitz, T. M. (2005). Development and construct validation of a measure of soft skills performance. Georgia Institute of Technology.

Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Boston (MA): Harvard business press.

Leckey, J. F., & McGuigan, M. A. (1997). Right tracks—wrong rails: The development of generic skills in higher education. Research in Higher Education, 38(3), 365-378.

Miles, M. B., Huberman, A. M., & Saldaña, J. (2018). Qualitative data analysis: A methods sourcebook. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

National Research Council. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. National Academies Press.

Nägele, C., Stalder, B.E. (2017). Competence and the Need for Transferable Skills. In: Mulder, M. (eds) Competence-based Vocational and Professional Education. Technical and Vocational Education and Training: Issues, Concerns and Prospects, vol 23. Springer, Cham.

Ngang, T. K., Yie, C. S., & Shahid, S. A. M. (2015). Quality teaching: Relationship to soft skills acquisition. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 191, 1934-1937.

Noah, J. B., & Aziz, A. A. (2020). A Systematic review on soft skills development among university graduates. EDUCATUM Journal of Social Sciences, 6(1), 53-68.

NOGA (2008). General Classification of Economic Activities. Accessed 19 October 2022.

OECD (2005). The Definition and Selection of Key Competencies (DeSeCo). Accessed 13 September 2022.

OECD (2013). The future of education and skills. Education 2030. Accessed 13 September 2022.

Okolie, U. C., Nwosu, H. E., & Mlanga, S. (2019). Graduate employability: How the higher education institutions can meet the demand of the labour market. Higher education, skills and work-based learning.

Rothe, H. J., & Hinnerichs, L. (2004). Wissens-und Kompetenzmanagement–verhaltensbeeinflussende subjektive und organisationale Bedingungen. Kompetenzmessung im Unternehmen Arbeitsgemeinschaft Betriebliche Weiterbildungsforschung eV (Hrsg.), Waxmann, Münster, New York, München, Berlin, 673-759.

Sá M. J. & Serpa S. (2018). Transversal Competences: Their Importance and Learning Processes by Higher Education Students. Education Sciences, 8(3):126.

Sauter, W. (2018), Die Zukunft des Lernens, Gütersloh: Bartelsmann Stiftung.

Voogt, J., & Roblin, N. P. (2012). A comparative analysis of international frameworks for 21st century competences: Implications for national curriculum policies. Journal of curriculum studies, 44(3), 299-321.

Weissmann, Y., Wolfrum, C. & Goldhahn, J. (2020). Bachelor Humanmedizin an der ETH Zürich. Praxis, 109(11), 853-858.

Wieser, A., Buff Keller, E., & Graf, S. (2020). Integrating transferable skills into an existing curriculum: The example of Geospatial Engineering at ETH Zurich. ETH Learning and Teaching Journal, 2(S 2), 281-286.

World Economic Forum. (2020). The future of jobs report 2020. Accessed 13 September 2022.