Why good academic writers perform poorly in the workplace: Teaching for transfer across contexts of writing (Part 1 of 2)

This post is the first of two posts on transference and academic writing from the 10th Anniversary Symposium on Writing, held at the Regional Writing Centre, University Limerick, Ireland in June 2017.

Lawrence Cleary is an Educational Developer and Co-Director, Regional Writing Centre at the University Limerick, Ireland

2017 marks the 10th anniversary of Ireland’s first academic writing centre, originally called the Shannon Consortium Regional Writing Centre, University Limerick. The Shannon Consortium is an alliance between four third-level institutes[1] in the Shannon region: The University of Limerick (UL), Mary Immaculate College (MIC), Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) and the Institute of Technology, Tralee (IT, Tralee)—the only institute outside of not only the city of Limerick, but also outside of County Limerick. The formation of that alliance facilitated the consortium’s acquisition of a variety of Strategic Innovation Funds (SIF) that had been offered by the Irish government from 2006-2008. One of those awards funded the Shannon Consortium Regional Writing Centre for the first two and a half years of its existence, long enough for my colleague, Íde O’Sullivan, and I to establish the centre’s value and appeal for institutional funding to preserve and maintain it. In 2009, the University of Limerick found the contribution of the centre significant enough to warrant allocating an annual budget to keep the resource open. That allocation is managed by the university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning, to whom we now report. However, though we are no longer funded by the Shannon Consortium, we maintained our regional aspirations in our new name, the Regional Writing Centre, UL, and this aspiration is in line with UL’s strategic plan, Broadening Horizons 2015-19.[2]

The Shannon Consortium schools

Previous to the establishment of this first third-level academic writing centre in Ireland, only one other academic writing centre existed on the island: St. Mary’s University College Writing Centre, in Belfast, established in 2002 by two Americans, Jonathan Worley and Matthew Martin. Jonathan and Matthew spoke at our first symposium on writing, Research on Writing Practices: Consequences for the Teaching of Writing and Learner Outcomes, organised by my colleague Íde O’Sullivan in December of 2007, with Ken Hyland as keynote speaker.

In that first symposium, Íde and I presented on our rationale for our choice of response to the university’s writing needs, subsequently published as ‘Responding to the Writing Development Needs of Irish Higher Education Students: A Case Study’ (Cleary, Graham, Jeanneau and O’Sullivan, 2009).[3] Though the bulk of the presentation and ensuing article focused on the results of Íde’s 2005 and 2006 surveys of staff and student attitudes toward writing and their preferences for writing provision, as well as on the informed, systematic approaches available to us for addressing the needs expressed in the surveys, even here we felt we had to first establish for our audience that writing mattered.

When making our case in this first presentation, much of our argument for the importance of writing was focused on the importance of writing for the achievement of the national strategies to which Irish universities responded in their own strategic plans. Ireland at that time was determined to become a knowledge economy. “Knowledge, innovation, creativity and workforce skills are now the key success factors for Ireland’s economic and social prosperity” (Hanafin 2005).[4] Citing the Teachta Dála’s words in her 2008 formal evaluation of our writing centre, Terry Zawacki emphasised this idea that “[t]he importance of writing in the overall higher education mission cannot be overestimated considering the knowledge-economy context in which Ireland now evolves.”[5]

Sometimes labelled transferable skills, at other times literacies, and occasionally competencies, communication in general and written communication in particular were high on the list of skills graduates would need in order to progress in their future careers. In the published version of our presentation, we referred to six major national and EU studies on the importance of transferable skills to the success of a knowledge economy. In early 2009, the three-year business plan that I submitted to UL’s Governing Authority, making a case for the sustainability of the writing centre in the years after SIF, included a section entitled ‘Published Reports Linking Writing with Employability in the Knowledge Economy’, which referenced thirteen studies that confirmed the value of communicative competency to a knowledge economy. Given our context, our sustainability was reliant on our ability to demonstrate that writing was intrinsically tied to the achievement of the national and institutional goals.

Lawrence Cleary (centre), Íde O’Sullivan (right), RWC Co-Directors, Aoife Lenihan, (fourth from left) filling in while Íde is away on secondment to another programme, Caroline Graham and Prof. Angela Chambers (left, respectively) original RWC managers

In addition to being connected to the aspirations of the state, UL’s aspirations are connected to its historical context. Beginning life as a National Institute of Higher Education (NIHE) modelled on technological universities on the continent, the institute quickly grew as a result of both foreign direct investment from multinationals, such as Analog Devices, as well as the support it received from Shannon Development, a body formed by the Irish government in 1959 to support Shannon Airport and the greater Shannon region, including counties Clare and Limerick, as well as parts of Offaly, Tipperary and Kerry. Shannon Development supported NIHE, Limerick, in its proposal to create a 650-acre national industrial park on the young institute’s doorstep, with which the institute would integrate its campus. Today, the 340-acre campus straddles the Shannon river, the south-side of its campus in County Limerick, the north-side in County Clare. Experts in their fields in various disciplines have partnered with industry to establish research institutes that support both doctoral and post-doctoral research. Equally, many lecturers and many of UL’s postgraduates do research and are often subsequently employed by more than 80 organisations situated in the adjacent national industrial park. A quote from our previous university President, Professor Don Barry, at the 2012 launch of History lecturer Dr. David Fleming’s book, University of Limerick—A History, highlights the importance the upper administration attaches to innovation and employability:

From its inception, the University of Limerick broke the mould of third level education in Ireland and when you consider what has been achieved here in a little over 40 years, it is truly quite remarkable. To take just one area, that of employability, UL pioneered the concept of Cooperative Education and now has the largest and most successful undergraduate work placement programme in Ireland, with placements across all disciplines in over twenty-five countries. UL also has an unrivalled graduate employment record. Over the years, UL has consistently recorded a graduate employment rate higher than the national average for universities. This year, despite the continuing challenging environment, UL’s graduate employment rate is 16% higher than the national average for all graduates in Ireland.[6]

That UL President, Professor Don Barry selected employability as an example of what the university has achieved in the past 40 years is not happenstance. Employability has always been one of UL’s greatest selling points. Given the suffering of the Irish people as a result of the 2007 financial crash and consequent recession, it is likely also UL’s greatest advantage in the minds of those enrolling at UL.

It is not surprising, therefore, that for our 5th Anniversary Symposium on Writing, The role of the higher education in preparing writers for the workplace: encouraging real engagement with writing at third level, addressed the relationship between writing and employment head on. Our symposium coincided with two initiatives that were both announced in UL’s 2011-2015 strategic plan, Pioneering and Connected[7]: Graduate Attributes[8] and Engaged Learning[9], both largely resulting from the work of Professor Sarah Moore, Associate Vice-President Academic and former Dean of Teaching and Learning. The Graduate Attributes programme highlights six attributes with which UL students will graduate, that they are ‘knowledgeable’, ‘articulate’, ‘collaborative’, ‘responsible’, ‘creative’ and ‘proactive’. The Engaged Learning document refers to engagement in terms of ‘broadening’—broadening the curriculum and how learning is facilitated, ‘excellence’ in terms of how learning is supported, and ‘employability’. A message from Professor Barry, UL President, in the Graduate Attributes document makes clear that both initiatives are about employability:

UL provides a learning environment and delivers a curriculum for students to facilitate the development of a depth of disciplinary expertise and a breadth of knowledge and experience. In addition to their own subject expertise and discipline-specific capability we seek to ensure a learning environment in which our students will be enabled to acquire and display attributes that have been persistently linked to employability, and are seen by employers as vital for graduates embarking on careers in any field.

Though neither document had been launched at the time of our second symposium in late April of 2012, all of our speakers had received an early copy of the Graduate Attribute document and responded in one way or another to its aspirations in their talk.

Keynote Damien Clancy, Managing Director of RUSAL Aughinish Alumina Ltd., spoke about his experience of the writing skills and attitudes toward writing and beliefs about writing practices of newly hired graduates in his talk. While speaking about the career-limiting effects of poor communications skills, Damien underscored the more holistic aim of the UL Graduate Attributes by placing communication skills in a wider array of skills that make for Aughinish Alumina’s ideal employee. Sally Mitchell of the Thinking, Writing programme, Queen Mary, University (QMU) of London, expressed the idea that employability driving education was not unique to UL. QMU, too, were instituting a Graduate Attributes statement, and Mary, alongside Guy Westwell, of the university’s School of Languages, Literature and Film, presented on how those attributes were being nested in his particular curriculum and to make the case that the practices by which GA outcomes were achieved are what should qualify the outcome’s value. Ciara O’Farrell, Senior Academic Developer, and Neil Docherty, School of Medicine, Trinity University Dublin, presented on ways a writing in disciplines approach that required writing in contexts beyond the university might link the broader university experience with the workplace. Trevor Day, Writing Consultant, Learning and Teaching Enhancement Office, University of Bath, presented on some of the more effective initiatives in the UK for developing undergraduate STEM writers. Finally, Professor Sarah Moore, University Limerick, made the case that writing is at the heart of the development of graduate attributes at UL, a claim we in the RWC had been making all along, though possibly never as eloquently as did she.

Five years later, employment is still an issue. The number of employed is almost back to what it was in 2007, but the population has grown[10],[11],[12]. Skilled labour is on the increase[13]. Unskilled labourers are not fairing as well; hence, the push for upskilling and the increase in the uptake of third-level education[14]. UL continues to advertise the employability of its graduates as its greatest feature.[15] Therefore, the reader should not be surprised that the Regional Writing Centre has chosen, again, to demonstrate, in their anniversary symposium, the importance of writing to employability.


Watch for Part Two on Monday, Nov. 6. 2017



[1] Third-level education in Ireland includes all post-secondary, what Americans would term post-high school, education. Third-level institutes include degree-awarding National Institutes of Higher Education, Institutes of Technology, Colleges and Universities.

[2] University of Limerick (2015) Strategic Plan: Broadening Horizons, 2015-2019. Online. [available at: http://www.ul.ie/ullinks/StrategicPlan/]. Accessed June 21, 2017.

[3] Cleary, L., Graham, C., Jeanneau, C. and O’Sullivan, Í. (2009) ‘Responding to the Writing Development Needs of Irish Higher Education Students: A Case Study’, AISHE-J, 1(1): 4.1-4.15.

[4] Hanafin, M. (2005) ‘Implementing the OECD Report: Address by Mary Hanafin T.D., Minister for Education and Science, on the Occasion of the Launch of the European University Association Review of Quality Assurance in Irish Universities Sector Report’. Online. [no longer available at: http://www.education.ie/en/Press-Events/Speeches/]; however, quoted in IUA (2005) “Reform Of 3rd Level and Creation of 4th Level Ireland”, A Framework Proposal Submitted by The Irish Universities Association, Securing Competitive Advantage in the 21st Century, p 9. Online. [available at http://www.iua.ie/publication/view/iua-submission-reform-of-3rd-level-and-creation-of-4th-level-ireland-oct-2005/]. Accessed 21 June, 2017.

[5] Zawacki, T. (2008) ‘External Evaluation of the Activities of the Shannon Consortium Regional Writing Centre, with University of Limerick as Lead Institution, and Recommendations towards Strategic Planning for Sustainability’ (unpublished).

[6] University of Limerick (2012) ‘University of Limerick History Launched’. Online. [available at: http://www.ul.ie/news-centre/news/university-of-limerick-history-launched]. Accessed 22 June, 2017.

[7] University of Limerick (2011) Pioneering and Connected: 2011-2015 Strategic Plan. Online. [available at: http://www2.ul.ie/pdf/897822806.pdf]. Accessed 22 June, 2017.

[8] University of Limerick (2012) Our Graduate Attributes. Online. [available at: http://www2.ul.ie/pdf/982103103.pdf]. Accessed 22 June, 2017.

[9] University of Limerick (2014) Engaged Learning: Teaching, Learning and Assessment Strategy 2014–18. Online. [available at: http://www.ulsites.ul.ie/executive/sites/default/files//Engaged%20Learning%20-%20Teaching%2C%20Learning%20and%20Assessment%20Strategy%202014-18.pdf]. Accessed 22 June, 2017.

[10] An Phríomh-Oifig Staidrimh:  Quarterly National Household Survey, Quarter 1 2008 http://www.cso.ie/en/csolatestnews/pressreleases/2008pressreleases/quarterlynationalhouseholdsurveyquarter12008/

[11] An Phríomh-Oifig Staidrimh: Quarterly National Household Survey, QNHS Detailed Employment Series Quarter 1 2011 – Quarter 1 2017 http://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/er/qnhs-es/qnhsemploymentseriesq12017/

[12] An Phríomh-Oifig Staidrimh: Press Release, Census 2016 Preliminary Results http://www.cso.ie/en/media/csoie/census/census2016/pr/COPprelim2016.pdf

[13] An Phríomh-Oifig Staidrimh:  Quarterly National Household Survey, Quarter 1 2008 http://www.cso.ie/en/csolatestnews/pressreleases/2008pressreleases/quarterlynationalhouseholdsurveyquarter12008/

[14] The Department of Education and Skills (IE) (2015) PROJECTIONS OF DEMAND FOR FULL TIME THIRD

LEVEL EDUCATION, 2015 – 2029, https://www.education.ie/en/Publications/Statistics/Statistical-Reports/Projections-of-demand-for-full-time-Third-Level-Education-2015-2029.pdf

[15] University of Limerick (2016) ‘UL RANKS HIGHLY IN QS GLOBAL EMPLOYABILITY RANKING’ http://www.ul.ie/international/ul-ranks-highly-qs-global-employability-ranking

2 thoughts on “Why good academic writers perform poorly in the workplace: Teaching for transfer across contexts of writing (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Well done, Lawrence! So good to see the continued progression of the UL writing centre. Best to you and Ide, Terry

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