Limitations of Competencies in Higher Education

Higher education is undergoing a significant transformation that is leading towards a new teaching and learning paradigm. The competencies approach has a key role in this process. But I believe that the competence approach has a number of limitations and weaknesses. Time for a critical analysis of the concept of competence as it is being used in higher education.

EU perspective

In the EU the organization of studies (duration, degree) and the content (what is taught and how) has been transformed, based on the following three premises:
– comparability between studies from all over the EU;
– mobility of students and teachers;
– cooperation for quality.

Throughout this process a key concept is that of competence. The competencies approach is playing a fundamental role, and is being used to design new syllabuses to enable comparability throughout the EU by standardising the way student performance is assessed.

limitations of the competency-based approach

The concept of competence has acquired remarkable importance in higher education. The notion of competence and skills is guiding the development of building higher education and led to standardized curricula. Previous higher education was intended to provide students with the general foundations of a discipline. Nowadays the emergence of lifelong learning and the theory of human capital have changed some basic assumptions. This has led to a conception of higher education in which capacity to update knowledge continuously to adapt to the needs of jobs and the market. Consequently, conceptions of education today frequently place a heavier emphasis on the development of specific skills than on the development of the whole human being.

In addition we are witnessing a growing appreciation of knowledge as a core element for competitive advantage in globalized economies.
The consequences of this approach is an in-depth explorations of the role that competencies/knowledge play in the shaping of curricula.

Competence vs capability

conceptual differences

On a practical analysis capabilities approaches and competences approaches may be seen to share broadly similar goals for education.
First, we discuss the differences between the concepts ‘competence’ and ‘capability’. We then assess the contrasting structural features of both concepts. Next we review the different contexts for thought and action invoked by each concept. Finally we identify the different orientations for measurement and evaluation furnished by both concepts.

differences of meaning

A competence can be defined as the ability to successfully meet complex demands in a particular context through the mobilization of knowledge, skills and attitudes. They are clearly directed at the results that an individual can achieve through an action, choice or behaviour.
Competencies are externally demand-orientated as they are intended to provide the individual with the appropriate skills to solve problems that arise from outside.

In case of capabilities the approach is not functional, but ethical and normative. The focus here is not on the results that a person achieves but on the fact of being able to opt for an action, choice or behaviour. The emphasis on capabilities involves understanding well-being as the freedom to choose some functionings rather than others.


The capabilities approach is much broader and more holistic than the competencies approach. While the competencies approach focuses on solving specific problems orientated to specific demands, the capabilities approach considers how the individual in his or her context can lead a life that he or she has reasons to value.
Capabilities are guided by the exercise of individual freedom to choose and develop the desired lifestyle, and therefore the values individuals consider to be desirable and appropriate. Capability therefore responds to an individual’s internal demand to freely choose his or her own way of life.

human agency

The competencies approach focuses on enabling actions to solve problems which are set externally. In the capabilities approach the notion of agency is essential. Within the competencies perspective the will to act or the intention of the agent is not relevant. The important thing is to be able to act in a way that copes with external demands. For the capability approach, the person’s motivation and reason for acting are essential.
Why do we need a transition towards the capability approach? The taken-for-granted assumption, competence approach, is not enough to generate social change. The capability approach is based on a critical view of today´s society. It includes the notion of agency – as the capacity to generate social change and transformation as an essential part.
The implications for higher education are significant, since the proper goal here is not to align education to ‘what society is’, but to orient it toward ‘what society should be’. In this regard, consideration of general principles such as equity, freedom and participation is central.

generating change

The context defines the content of the competency. Individuals are competent when they have the potential to solve a specific problem defined by the characteristics of complexity in a given context.
In contrast, the capabilities approach is defined by the opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment. From this perspective, it is capability that has a potential for generating changes in the context through agency.


One of the most valuable aspects of the competencies approach as a tool for curriculum design is its capacity to be tested and the transparency of the assessment criteria. Competences are manifested in actions, behaviours and decisions in particular situations or contexts. Being competent is shown through repetition of these actions, behaviours and decisions over time.

To a certain extent this is similar to a capability approach. The complexity is greater. As capabilities are potential functionings not necessarily achieved, they may not necessarily be put into practice and therefore be observable.


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