Employability appears to be a simple idea that carries a considerable burden. It should be found in universities because they should meet the needs of employers and the nation’s economy, and the happy corollary is the debt-burdened student will need to seek employment to pay that debt, and have a worthwhile and rewarding career. Everyone wins.
Or do they? How have employers so consistently (and for so long) complained that they can’t recruit graduates with the skills they need, or those they have recruited have not got the skills they require? Do employers have realistic ideas about what they need and want? Do the complaints from employers have a robust rigour and justification given the self-selecting evidence?
And given that an employer is driven to maximise its labour surplus for optimised profit, how would it not be the case that an employer would not expend its own resources in training and inducting staff? The imperative of minimising costs and maximising efficiencies dictates that the employer should always complain that the graduates it obtains need to be improved. If others can be persuaded to carry the costs of improving materials, production methods and human resources, then that is a benefit to the company.
Entering the purpose
There have been some continuities in the reports and reviews of higher education since the Eccles report in the mid 1950, to Robbins and Crosland in the 1960s – all made note of the importance of higher education in the sustaining and growing of the economy. Here the focus was deliberate and specific about meeting the needs of a technical and scientific skills base: the colleges of technology, the conversion to the new technical universities (e.g. Aston, Salford, Bradford) and the creation of the polytechnic sector. But there was no mention of employability.
Since 1997 the Dearing review, the Browne report and Sir Michael Barber’s comments on the formation of the Office for Students have continued the tradition of confirming the contribution to the economy, but there has been a change of tone and emphasis which reflected rather than initiated economic change. Having the expertise of a knowledge discipline was now not sufficient – for the concept of ’employability’, now central to the purpose, universities were to somehow inculcate something else.
That something else was bound up with a notion of personal survival and upward mobility. The model had some basis in hard reality as businesses changed, were acquired, diversified, asset stripped, and moved away from established communities. It is personal survival that accompanies national economic decline and a change in corporate management from production to financial and share management. As David Edgerton has pointed out, the management priorities have been to handle the turbulence of markets at the cost of quality of service and production. This means there are changes to the qualities and values required to survive the turbulence of the internationalisation of employing, control, management and capitalisation. And since Dearing, universities are now to be at the forefront of the needed changes to values and qualities that ought to be instilled in graduates for this new mode of survival.
In other words, exhortations to employability are based on the changing nature of employment itself: the ability to negotiate a portfolio career rather than a recognised career ladder, the ability to transfer across conventional boundaries, to learn to learn and to think critically. The anachronism underpinning this view is that a motive for requiring ’employability’ is the need for the economy to grow, when the needs of many employers are no longer confined within national boundaries. The end of the traditional career ladder was bound up with the end of national borders for capital. It is not just the call centre jobs in Newcastle that matter, but the graduates in India seeking jobs in call centres in Kolkata too.
Definition is futile
What is ’employability’, anyway? There has been talk for decades now about ‘transferable skills’, ‘soft skills’, ‘key transferable skills’ and latterly ‘graduate attributes’, and a long debate about either embedding them in the curriculum or somehow being around in the ethos (or ether) of the campus. The economic conditions have given employability a mythic status – it exists in scare quotes as an empty concept in much the same way that ‘character’ or ‘spirit’ were considered immanent qualities in a person a hundred years ago
Yet it is a concept pursued by universities and used for marketing purposes, where the tenuous outcomes of ’employability’ are evidenced in ‘outcomes’ like the rate of employment. Unsurprisingly, the top of this league table is populated by Russell Group universities. But does this mean that students from these universities are more highly employable than those less fortunate in modern universities? It seems a priori analytic that it does: they have the highest rates of hiring, so they are at the top of the table.
The ‘in employment or further study’ question in league table metrics makes a big contribution to a league position for a university. But the employment destination after 6 months is not the same as ’employability’, and there is a tenuous link between employment and ’employability’. An observation by Mantz Yorke and Peter Knight made clear that employment may be a necessary condition for ’employability’ – but it is not sufficient. In simple terms, half the recent graduates are not in ‘graduate-type’ employment and do not think their university education, or their level of debt, was worthwhile.
Do the results at the top of the table mean that engendering employability is difficult (if not entirely futile) given the positional advantages the top Russell Group universities have, and that being at the top is not causally connected to later acquisition of capabilities or skills? And if there is little connection between these concepts and the actual practice of employment, then what is happening?
We might assume that the profile of courses would make a difference in employment outcomes – those with vocational courses will have higher rates of employment, like nursing, civil engineering, medicine, and accountancy. Modern universities tend to have a preponderance of such courses which specialise in knowledge that is applied – vocational competences in the ‘knowing that’ and in the application of ‘knowing how’.
There is a logical complexity to the links between knowing, understanding and the internal abilities of doing – what Wittgenstein called a ‘form of mastery’. Yet modern universities with such vocational courses are low down in the tables. Perhaps the Yorke-Knight view of there being no strong connection between the concept and practice was implicitly a critique of employers not knowing either what they need or recognising it when they have it.
Unlike vocational and academic competences, employability is difficult to measure – the relation to employment is vague or unconnected in that it is always a potentiality of social position and not strongly tied to an actual knowledge condition; and as it cannot be measured, then it must in some way be within a person as a character trait or disposition. And in terms of measurement, employability then just equals being employed.
It comes down to what we mean when we say that someone is ‘highly employable’. The concept hides cultural and normative conditions of the higher education sector and wider social stratifications. Bourdieu considered universities as providing cultural capital (knowledge, skills, abilities) but introducing employability exhortations suggests that cultural capital is itself deeply hierarchical; what counts as cultural capital within the area of ’employability’ is determined by who is doing the counting.
The downgrading of vocational courses as worthy only of polytechnics (which should be brought back instead of being turned into universities, etc) is an example of the value-laden approach to the socio-political attitudes to learning in general and the higher education sector in particular. Without an accessible sense of the competencies and abilities of ’employability’, it may merely be down to a matter of taste. Or class.
The debate over other purposes for the curriculum or the campus has not only been about employability. Over the years, there have been initiatives to include in the curricula ideas about being responsible citizens, global citizens, understanding there are ethical decisions to be made, and that historically rooted and creative new principles can be applied to existing and emerging conditions in the world and in employment. These initiatives won’t contribute to league table positions or ’employability’. Understanding the complexity of ethics and the application of ethical principles – that an individual’s actions will have consequences – may contradict some of the immediate and obvious demands for the inculcation of ’employability’. But they may help to save the planet.