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Employability: metrics and definitions

Responding to Johnny Rich's piece before Christmas which argued that the coming TEF should measure employability rather than employment outcomes, Doug Cole of the Higher Education Academy argues the risks of this approach becoming the prevailing narrative as policy is formulated.
This article is more than 7 years old

Doug Cole is Head of Academic Practice at the Higher Education Academy.

Johnny Rich’s argument about the importance of focusing on employability rather than employment as an outcome metric shines a useful light on the TEF debate. But the sector now needs to agree on a new collective definition of employability, if the coming framework is going to be in a position to drive the best outcomes for graduates.

The article and report propose a new model for what really matters for employability: we all know how important it is, yet its real meaning, whilst defined in the academic literature, does not always inform our actions in practice. Johnny is right that skills are a component of employability, but there is a danger in allowing the discourse to be dominated by this focus.

How we talk about employability is important: this discourse influences policy, funding, practice, and the engagement of academic staff and students. But unfortunately in the UK there is often an explicit and narrow focus on the term ‘skills,’ with ‘employability skills’ sometimes added to the mix. Employability skills are often talked about by both management and academics as if they were the sum total of what is meant by employability. However we know from the research that skills are only one element of any model of employability and other factors are equal if not more important.

In addition, employability skills are no different to the kinds of skills we have always known to be important for success in any occupation, such as teamwork, communication and leadership skills. We used to call these generic or transferable skills. It is important to be clear about this, especially if we are asking students to care about it.

Employability encompasses a combination of factors: those that Johnny has listed under “social capital” – which I would argue deserves a higher profile than he has given them – and other factors such as attitudes and behaviours. To be effective in our approach to employability requires a combined approach, not a single focus, intervention, programme or activity.

To this end, the HEA has developed a framework for embedding employability into higher education, aligned to the UK Professional Standards Framework, that offers a structure and process, and works as both a strategic and practical tool. The framework is already being used in practice and some universities have already embedded it at an institutional level, thus impacting on programmes and students. For example, adopting this approach means that all Northumbria University programmes are engaging in a consistent approach to employability in relation to curriculum design. It might be different for each programme area, but at its core Northumbria University has highlighted a number of specific factors that they wish all their graduates to possess in the same way that many universities have adopted their own Graduate Attributes.

The HEA framework builds on existing good practice but also puts the spotlight on the kinds of areas that up to now have either been neglected or are so embedded and implicit that the students don’t always recognise what they have gained and struggle to articulate the real depth of their experiences and capabilities. By encouraging dialogue between all stakeholders, stage one of engaging with the employability framework brings industry, academics and students together to develop a shared view of the challenges at hand. It also encourages reflection and discourse around an area that is too easily dismissed as irrelevant or viewed as being about gaining a job or collecting some skills on the way through HE. Employability is about so much more than that. What academics want to see in good students is really no different to what employers want to see in good employees. There is no tension with these two agendas, simply a difference in language and terminology.

If we agree with Johnny that employability should be one of the metrics for TEF, how can we work towards this? The Destination of Leavers in Higher Education (DLHE) statistics, which have been suggested as a possible metric, merely measure whether a student has a graduate job on a particular day six months after graduation: this is not a measure of employability.

More meaningful metrics for employability in relation to the TEF could include the percentage of students accessing work-related learning opportunities – such as  placements, internships, simulations, case studies and live projects. Or perhaps the percentage of students accessing career guidance and advice, or the percentage of students engaging in employability-related awards. Perhaps even metrics that relate to areas such as reflective practice, emotional intelligence or self-confidence.

All of the above would more usefully reflect positive action and would have a greater impact on our graduates’ future success. And the Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) could be an ideal vehicle to use to record these types of activities in one place and act as a comprehensive record of a student’s wider engagement during their time at university.

Employability has suffered from being a buzzword for many years and has often been ill-defined or not defined at all. It is time to take stock and make sure we are all starting from a position of mutual understanding so that we can work together towards better outcomes for our students. To use more buzzwords, employability is not just about students collecting a series of skills badges to add to their knowledge badges. We want graduates who are well-rounded, confident, self-aware, capable of critical thinking and who can not only get that first job or start their own business, but go on to have successful careers in whatever areas they decide to pursue.

Once we acknowledge this distinction, we can then work collectively to achieve the results we are aspiring to as education providers and deliver for the students themselves. We have already created a framework to support a more consistent and comprehensive approach to employability, do we really need another framework with a narrower focus?

6 responses to “Employability: metrics and definitions

  1. Given that many students are – or were previously – employed when they enter university, how would that work in terms of employability? Are we looking at some kind of value-added scoring?

  2. I’m struggling to understand what this piece adds to the debate over employability. Frankly, Johnny Rich’s piece does a superior job in offering a clear way forward to structuring employability into the curriculum. It certainly has more to than the HEA framework promoted here. As ever, the HEA is mired in abstractions: inclusivity, engagement, collaboration – how do these lead institutions towards any kind of meaningful response?

  3. Liz I have spent the last 6 years researching employability and the last 3 years working full time in employability in two very different institutions. During this time I used the HEA framework on a daily basis to engage academics and approach employability in a more consistent, systematic and comprehensive manner. From this experience of working face to face with academics across all programme areas, I know this is a tool that can help at both a strategic and practical level. Jonny Rich’s piece whilst raising some valid points is an opinion piece and is not based on the employability research out there which does informs the points made in this article, and this is a problem. Skills alone are not the solution and there is already too much of a focus on this single area which is the main point. Anyone who truly understands the complexity of employability would agree with this, this is not just an HEA view, this is a view where we have worked with experts in employability from across the sector and it is a point that needed to be made. I would be very happy to talk to you anytime about how the framework can support institutions if you would like to get in touch.

  4. Scott employability applies to all of us, it is life-long, therefore whether we are employed and studying part-time or studying full-time we still need to consider and address a range of areas relating to personal, academic and career development. How we view and address each of these areas will vary depending on our previous experiences etc. but fundamentally each of the areas we highlight as being important, still need to be given consideration. It is very much an individual journey and therefore looking at ways of assessing distance travelled and value added would be a good idea and there are a number of projects currently being developed in the sector looking at learning gain.

  5. I am 62 years of age, worked in commerce and industry (private and public sector) for over 40 of those and for a great deal of the time was an employer in large multi nationals and the comment I would make about this piece is:

    About b….. time!!!!

    We need students who know how to understand what they have learnt, know how and why to apply their learning, know how to carry on learning for life and are able to be productive the first day on the job for their employers. These are behavioural competencies and technical skills that are generic, irrespective of the nature of the course or degree subject, they are process skills not product outcomes. (product is what they do – doctor, engineer etc, process is how they do it in real life).

    Dewey, Revans, de Montaigne and Confusius all advocate learning by doing (action based, project based experiential learning and the way this is carried out enablse competency and mastery to be achieved in the behavioural and technical skill,s which in turn can be assessed and certificated (if need be) and this enables an employer to be able too judge employability – not the system.

    The student and the employer are the customers of the education process, it is their wants and needs that should be paramount.

  6. David’s comment takes us to a key issue – audience(s). So – in my view – it’s less about defining employability anew, (personally I’m still very attached to the definition we developed in the Enhancing Student Employability National Co-ordination Team a decade or so ago) and more about ensuring our definitions are meaningful to a range of audiences. We need to be able to say, in ‘plain English’, how study and the wider opportunities provided by HE enable students to develop the kinds of capabilities that will be useful to them in making their way in the world, managing their own development, and adding value to those organisations that employ them. Such a focus might place ‘employability’ centre stage, though my sense is that students that engage with the wider world – as volunteers for example – and develop though such opportunities will find themselves highly employable, even if they did not volunteer with that as an express aim. In that context David’s focus upon process is vital and much welcomed, though aligned to necessary knowledge where appropriate of course. It emphasises how we need to design and deliver the curriculum, and recognise the learning that can come from less formal opportunities.

    Metrics – if we must have them, and they are in my view intensely problematic – need to be led by considerations of ‘fitness for purpose’. Thus, at the end of the day, we need to focus upon implementation rather than on measuring things that are easy to measure. So this is a plea to start with clarity, simplicity – and meaningful communication with the key stakeholders. Whether politicians will agree on the metrics issue, of course, is another matter!

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