The world of work is changing rapidly, and it is crucial that universities respond to these changes in tandem.
Clearly, our collective understanding of employability is pivotal to modern higher education delivery, but the underpinning concepts are not yet fully formed. The measures we use are blunt instruments, incapable of reflecting the nuanced and complex realities of transitioning from education to work, not least in how we measure employability for part-time and distance learners.
Equally blunt is the tendency to conflate employment with ’employability skills’, perhaps because we can persuade employers that our students tick lots of their skills boxes. Values and behaviours are just as important in the world of work, but are harder to measure. But for now, this is not what we are choosing to measure. TEF includes student outcomes metrics (six month DLHE data) as part of its assessment framework, but this only narrows the concept of learning gain to being about employment outcomes after study.
But there are opportunities to present a more nuanced understanding of student outcomes. The Longitudinal Education Outcomes data set presents an opportunity for students’ degree outcomes to be understood in the broader context of their socio-economic and background information. Yet LEO’s use of the National Pupil Database marker excludes all students born before 1984 and includes Key Stage 5 or equivalent qualifications only. Mature and open-entry learner profiles are sadly excluded from the capabilities of this exciting new data set.
Measuring employability, when you’re already employed
Critically, descriptors and measures of employability fail to adequately capture the substantial numbers of part-time students who are in work. Given the aim of 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020, the urgency of addressing this could not be more pressing. The part-time sector must broaden its thinking from the narrowness of employment outcomes to a more nuanced clustering of plural gains: learning gain, working gain and personal gain. This embodies a more holistic fusion of skills, values and attitudes in employment journeys.
Johnny Rich has defined employability as being the ability to “get a job, to keep a job and to get on in a job”. This is a richer understanding of outcomes and gains for part-time Open University students. It recognises that, for our students (of whom 46% self-define as career changers and 44% as career developers), higher education does not represent the ability to get that first job, but the ability to keep their current job and (or) progress on to the next job.
76% of Open University students are already in employment on taking up study with us. The use of DLHE data, indicating the activity of our graduates six months after graduation, does nothing to measure the distance that these students have travelled in their work and professional lives with us. New DLHE will demonstrate a broader feel for the part-time student experience through questions which specifically interrogate the experiences of students ‘in work’ during their studies.
A more nuanced three-gains modelling – learning gain, working gain and personal gain – measures the distance that students travel between their entry and exit points (whatever that exit point may be) and specifically captures the impact that their study has had on their career and professional development. Many universities capture quality assurance data in relation to career motivation and personal outcomes. However, the ability to track and measure perceptions ‘in study’ is limited and it is this ‘in study’ data set which may help students and their employers to reflect on that study-work relationship, articulate that study-work relationship and demonstrate the impact between part-time study and their career.
Currently, Personal Development Portfolios are compulsory in a student’s first year of study at The Open University and provide us with the ability to assess and measure students’ reflections on their development. This provides opportunities for us to develop that reflective dialogue for the student between their study and work and in so doing potentially use this as a way of involving their employer more obviously in this task. However, as an institution, we do not systematically capture these reflective dialogues, nor provide consistent opportunities for students to revisit and review these dialogues throughout their time with us. This is where the importance of the third ‘gain’ comes into its own: ‘personal gain’ could systematically track how, and in what way, study has enhanced an individual’s sense of self.
Future measures of learning gain and student outcomes must necessarily incorporate this more holistic scope of learning, working, and personal development, in order to be more appropriate to the experience of part-time and in-work study.