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?