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What is Holistic Competency?

Many terms have been used to refer to holistic competency in the literature, including soft skills, generic skills, 21st century skills, generic attributes, transferable skills, generic competencies and employability skills. Chan and her team used a more fitting term holistic competency to stress the importance of competencies that a person need to develop for him/herself, for friends and family, for career and for society during the lifetime. These competencies go beyond different disciplines, situations and time. According to Oxford Dictionary, holistic is characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole. Dr. Chan believes that there is no defined set of competencies, as the world evolves, new kind of competencies may become more essential, yet they are all interconnected to develop the person holistically. Holistic competency extends to lifelong learning attitudes and the sense of professional ethics and values that contribute to the general well-being of the society.

Holistic competency is an umbrella term inclusive of different types of generic skills (e.g. critical thinking, communication skills, global competency, information literacy, resilience), positive values (e.g. professional ethics), and attitudes (e.g. lifelong learning) which are essential for students’ whole-person development.

Holistic competencies are often not explicitly written as learning outcomes in courses and do not form part of the assessment, thus, to motivate students to develop their holistic competencies, teachers need to pay additional attention to the design of their activities. Students may engage with the activity if the outcomes for the activity align closely with student’s personal rationale allowing them to develop their holistic competency. If not, they may completely avoid the activity. 

Similarly, assessment of holistic competency is very challenging due to its subjective nature and as every student has different experience, it is not possible to determine a baseline. In order to promote competencies and raise students’ and teachers’ awareness, it is vital to provide some forms of assessment, however, this kind of assessment may be quite different from our traditional approach, and teachers should be open to new assessment approaches.   

What is Holistic Competency?

Importance of Holistic Competencies

The importance of competencies is captured by a statement in the viral video Did You Know? Shift Happens (2018): “We are currently preparing students for jobs and technologies that don’t yet exist … in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.”

This is resonated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It states that competencies are instrumental for future students to succeed in career and in life in this fast-changing world (OECD, 2018). In fact, it is evidenced that having only excellent academic qualifications is “no longer enough” (Carey, 2012). A number of international corporations, including Google, Ernst and Young, Bank of America, Apple and IBM do not see academic qualifications as the only yardstick when hiring staff (Connley, 2018).


Equipping students with holistic competencies can help prepare them for an unknown future which is going to change quite rapidly. This is one of the reasons why education has to focus more on holistic competency development than just academic knowledge alone.

In the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020, critical thinking and problem-solving skills were reported by some of the world’s largest employers as the top skills in demand across their industries. However, education has to move beyond preparing students to become “well-educated” individuals who are employable. To help students succeed and flourish in life in an increasingly interconnected world, education must also cultivate their global competency, compassion, social skills, self-awareness and emotional health. Thus, holistic competency and virtue education is of paramount importance in enabling students to become good persons and global citizens who can promote and sustain both individual and social wellbeing.

Top 10 Skills of 2025

Over the past twenty years, competencies in higher education have shifted from purely career-oriented competency towards a more holistic view of graduate attributes that include ‘softer’ skills and person-centred qualities to cultivate responsible global citizens (Oliver and Jorre de St Jorre, 2018). For example, at the University of Melbourne, Australia, the graduate attributes are two-fold, including employability skills such as communication, teamwork, problem-solving, organisation, self-management, digital literacy, leadership, customer service and research, and personal attributes such as commitment, reliability, enthusiasm, common sense, sense of humour, honesty, integrity, motivation and adaptability. Similarly, at the University of Hong Kong, six educational aims approved by the University Senate were included in the four-year curriculum reform in 2008 (Chan and Luk, 2013). The six educational aims are:

  1. Pursuit of academic/professional excellence, critical intellectual inquiry and lifelong learning;

  2. Tackling novel situations and ill-defined problems;

  3. Critical self-reflection, greater understanding of others, and upholding personal and professional ethics;

  4. Intercultural communication, and global citizenship;

  5. Communication and collaboration; and

  6. Leadership and advocacy for the improvement of the human condition.

To further understand higher education’s missions and visions for students, we examined the graduate attributes of fifty top ranking universities. It was found that communication, teamwork, problem solving and leadership are among the most common targeted competencies. Lifelong learning has also been mentioned in mission statements of many universities. These evidences clearly indicate that competency development is essential and they are no longer just skills for work, but skills for life.

Importance of Holistic Competencies


Chan, C. K. Y., & Luk, L. Y. Y. (2013). Faculty perspectives on the “3+3+4” curriculum reform in Hong Kong: A case study. International Education Studies, 6(4), 56-66.

Connley, C. (2018). Google, Apple and 12 other companies that no longer require employees to have a college degree.

Oliver, B., & Jorre de St Jorre, T. (2018). Graduate attributes for 2020 and beyond: Recommendations for Australian higher education providers. Higher Education Research & Development, 37(4), 821-836.

OECD (2018), Education 2030: The Future of Education and Skills. Position paper,

World Economic Forum. (2020). The future of jobs report 2020.

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