Is employability the core product of higher education? [Part deux]

Last week I shared my musings whether employability is the core product of higher education, and my answer was in short ‘not just yet, but it might be soon’. I was challenged on that point by an academic at an Inside Government policy forum I was invited to speak at. The question that was brought forward was almost ‘how dare we not make it the core of our provision, if we’re charging ever higher fees?’. Fair enough – we made the promise, and have started taking money at point of delivery. This also chimed with a recent discussion I had with some outstanding graduates who had joined a major brewery’s trainee scheme whom I had met recently – their views were even more pronounced – they referred to higher education as basically a big scam; over years students were fed the line that if they sought a ‘proper’ degree from a ‘reputable’ institution (both had studied humanities degrees from well established institutions) , employment outcomes would be there for them. Their expectations reflected not their naivety, but the promises made – not only all the smoke and mirrors of destinations statistics and the careers based marketing talk to cajole them into a specific institution – but the expectation raised in a generation that had been told that the only path to success would only lead through higher education. They only did what ‘we’ told them; too bad with the economy tanking in the meantime. So while preparing for today’s panel debate with the National Union of Students in Manchester, I came to understand that I have to rephrase the question to ‘should employability be a core outcome of higher education?’ – and my answer is a clear yes. However the old school academic in me might argue that there are vocational and non-vocational degrees, the goalposts have shifted. Education is now a commodity (whether we like it or not), and the knowledge economy depends upon a supply of talented, educated and trained recruits. Academia produces a lot of the knowledge they need, but has to make sure it changes it pedagogical approaches so that students become employable. It’s just keeping up the promise we have been making for too long, so we can’t step away from it now. Note that I didn’t say ’employed’ – what HE institutions are currently measured on in DLHE and KIS is mostly employment and this is a highly volatile matter and very different outcome – see my views on that here. I personally dream of a university that allows students the academic freedom to explore their subjects as deeply as they wish (with minimal ‘outcomes based learning’ constraints), but makes available, and embeds employability into the curriculum. And I see some excellent work, especially within sandwich degrees – as recognised by the excellent Wilson review. Let’s see though what I learn this week from those that represent our actual clients – the students.

October 31st, 2012 by