When it comes to metrics, the TEF is all about outcomes. Of course, it’s all open to consultation, but the painfully deliberate avoidance of input measures (such as academic teaching qualifications) suggests that the consultation is about as open as an oyster with rigor mortis.
Jo Johnson has chosen three outcomes for the ‘common metrics’ that will form the starting assumptions when it comes to institutions vying for TEF banding. The metrics involved are strange choices.
Retention rates are important. (I’ve been banging on about them since the early 90s when Push published institution-by-institution data on drop-out for the first time.) However, research suggests a lack of teaching excellence is rarely the reason for dropping out.
Similarly, satisfaction (NSS scores) are a function of what a student expects as much as what they get. These are both poor proxies for teaching excellence.
But the most poxy proxy is DLHE, the annual survey that monitors students’ progress into jobs six months after graduating.
Leaving aside the many methodological issues with DLHE, the fact of whether someone has got a job is only distantly related to what they have learnt as a result of teaching. If they were the same, it would suggest that when students graduate in a recession and struggle to find work, it must be because their teaching had got worse. That’s obviously not the case.
We shouldn’t be measuring employment. We should measure employability. They’re not the same. When employment falls, such as in a recession, employability often rises as people acquire new knowledge or skills to make themselves more competitive. Employability is the ability to get, keep and succeed in jobs you want – both now and in the future as the economy shifts.
For Mr Johnson, the acquisition of employability should be his ideal HE outcome. Not only does it justify students paying higher fees because their employability has a cash reward, but it also justifies the taxpayer’s contribution to HE as an investment in building a resilient and adaptable labour market.
The problem is that, like any aspect of learning gain, trying to measure employability is like trying to wall-mount jelly – you’re going to need a container.
The Higher Education Policy Institute asked me to write a paper on this subject which is published today as Employability: Degrees of Value. In it, I’ve outlined my choice of jelly container, which is to define employability as having three components.
The first component, knowledge, is at the core of HE and, although degree classifications may not be a perfect way of measuring the transmission of knowledge, that’s not a fight I’m going to pick here.
The second is what I call ‘social capital’, but I admit I’m trying to be provocative. It’s actually wider than that. It’s a whole set of attitudes, behaviours and social and physical attributes – everything from a student’s self-esteem to their ethnicity. I just feel that by calling it social capital, we can recognise that some of this is not about people’s real ability to do jobs. Nor is self-improvement entirely within their control.
This is an area that bears further examination than I had space for in my HEPI paper. Universities neither can – nor should – do much about students’ looks, gender, age or ethnicity, but these are all factors that play a part in their employability, whether rightly or wrongly. Okay, wrongly. We certainly never want to create a perverse incentive for universities to admit students who are more attractive to employers on these unjust criteria.
Then there are attitudes and behaviours that employers do value and, in most cases, are justified in doing so. The uncomfortable truth is that some of these (the ‘right’ accent for high level business, for example, or an anything-is-possible approach) are often associated with social class, again rightly or wrongly. These are some of the reasons many people think independent schools are worth paying money for.
As universities try to weave employability into their courses, they could take a look at which elements of social capital we do want to promote, see how they do it in schools where they get it right and give some thought to doing the same and measuring social capital development in HE too. Co-curricular opportunities and the wider student experience play a big part.
In any case, the role of social capital in employability reminds us that – like so many metrics in HE – it can only really be understood in context.
When the Green Paper tagged wider participation on to the TEF like a wind-sail on a F1 car, it seemed like a well meaning, but misplaced add-on. However, when we think about creating employability within the wider social context, the link begins to become apparent. (Not that I believe that’s what anyone at BIS had in mind).
The third component of employability (the one that features most in my HEPI paper) is skills: ‘soft’ (transferrable) skills and hard (job-specific) skills.
To measure these, Johnson needs to put in place a common (and easy to understand) framework of the diverse range of skills that students are expected to gain from differing courses. The extent to which each skill is acquired would be set against a series of descriptors. Different disciplines and courses would vary, but that’s what we want. People don’t need skills across the board. They need a skill ‘set’ that matches a career.
Students can reflect on their skills at the start and end of their courses and assess themselves, providing a metric of learning gain. More importantly though, the single biggest difference we can make to students’ employability is to raise their awareness of it, increase their understanding of what it’s made of and let them see how well their studies can support their development of skills as well as knowledge.
Similarly, with greater understanding of the components of employability, academics might also benefit and adapt programmes to optimise learning, But the burden must be light: academics must be liberated to teach effectively, pausing only to acknowledge the skills benefits of their courses.
In this way, greater transparency about employability outcomes will help ease the scandal of students taking courses they imagine are career passports when the truth is that the labour market is already flooded in that sector. They’ll see it’s their skills and knowledge that make the difference, not the course label.
After all, the purpose of higher education is not to create a conveyor belt of work-ready drones. It’s about building a civilised society. However, in the process, one of the outcomes has to be that graduates can build careers. Apart from anything else, survey after survey confirms that a getting better jobs in the long term is the single most important reason that prospective students have for going to university.
Read Employability: Degrees of Value here.