The employability debate

“I didn’t come to university to get a high-paid job. I came to get a job that I wanted to wake up and do.” This was only one of the impressive comments at the employability debate I moderated at the National Union of Students Zones conference in Manchester last week.  True to the mission of this blog, I had to mull this one over for a bit. There was a lot to learn, and I may come back to other key parts later – but the main lesson was that ‘we’ as educators, academics, CEIAG or employability professionals, might sometimes overlook what the students are looking for in higher education; and it’s not only a degree and an employment outcome – it’s so much more. I have often written about my impression that education, with its quality regime and learning outcomes may have become a bit reductionist, but I wasn’t prepared to be told that putting employability at the core would be viewed just as critically. I liked the culture of the debate in that no tenet was safe from being questioned, and the exceptional variety of opposing viewpoints guaranteed a plethora of opinions and ideas to agree or disagree with. What I have learnt was that the expectations towards an academic education may still  be more classically one of the Humboldtian idea of wider learning and personal growth and that the commoditization of HE that guides many of our professional lives within HE – how do we present ourselves, and our academic ‘products’ – may not resonate with a significant number of our clients/customers. In a sense, there’s a chance some of them may ‘call our bluff’ and tell us that they are not after an ’employment outcome’ or a market information based ‘choice’ after all. Part of me sympathizes with this – as my own academic curriculum as a student was lovingly ignoring the employment markets (our careers service was solely for us ‘no-hopers’ in the humanities and social sciences ‘who would never have a job’) the other part of me resigns itself to the fact that education has so clearly ’embraced the markets’ for the last decades, that it seems unlikely that we can – or should – return to a more classic model of academia. Personally, I always thought a middle way to be the natural path to take; but if we take our client base really seriously, should we not take their motivation to engage with academia more into account? To close, I’d like to draw the attention back to the quote at the beginning of this post – this certainly resonates with me. Deciding to work in academia certainly hasn’t made me rich – but it enriches my daily lives in ways which I personally wouldn’t have found anywhere else.

PS: I will emerge myself in probably a wholly different mindset and opinions today, when again in Manchestr, I will be at the Futuretrack conference on … graduate employability. Follow #futuretrackconf for live commentary.

November 7th, 2012 by