Is employability the core product of higher education?

This is more a thought processs than something I’ve yet made my mind up about – it was raised by an excellent presentation at last week’s Westminster Forum Briefing on graduate employability which I had the privilege to be asked to be a speaker at. The first talk, by Nannette Ripmeester (follow @labourmobility) focused not only the biggest impediment on UK graduate mobility within – the lack of foreign language skills on the whole – but also raised the question if employability is the core product of higher education. She mentioned the limitations of curriculum development led by employers – pointing out to the differences in focus and communication between corporate and HE organisations – and raised the question which inspired this blog entry. So far my answer is – no, it is not. At least it didn’t use to be: Employability has become part of the product as part of the drive towards putting a price tag on higher education, helping to justify the investment by students and their parents into their tertiary education. The question is now how effectively HE institutions can make accurate claims about how they impact employment rates (which are a partial indicator, but not conclusive evidence of employability – I wonder what Karl Popper would have thought of DLHE destination statistics) and how this is based on other than brand recognition, ranking and social coding. So here’s my current take on what is a thought which I intend to develop over the next three weeks as I have two more conference appearances and will get a chance to talk to policy makers, HE professionals, employers and most importantly, students. Here goes: Graduate employability is not the core product of HE yet, although it may become it over the next few years. I think employment and salary statistics have become the main marketing tool (with the Key Information Sets exercise closing the loop), and in following the old adage of ‘you get what you measure’, this dilutes the earlier definition of higher education as a transformatory experience which combines acquiring knowledge with self-directed learning about an academic discipline, part of which can be applied in the world of work, part of which makes you a more rounded person who can look beyond the immediate problem at hand (which is a key skill to become an academic). This shift in marketing HE has undoubtedly changed expectations about the core product – but it seems that product development (the courses as they are being designed) may not have caught up with the claims made by institutional marketing. And to remain credible, and competitive with other English speaking markets (that includes the whole Bologna higher education marketplace – see my comment above about language skills) UK HE needs to focus on creating high quality relevant products.

October 22nd, 2012 by