Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

WEEKEND READING: Enough with the one-dimensional employability discourse

  • 30 May 2020
  • By Audrey Songhurst

This piece was kindly contributed by Dr Audrey Songhurst, former Head of Operations in Kent Innovation and Enterprise, University of Kent. Audrey was awarded a Doctorate in Education from Canterbury Christ Church University and her thesis was entitled ‘Employability through a philosophical lens – a conceptual analysis’.

One of the eight interventions for mitigating the impact of Covid-19 on higher education, recommended by Chris Husbands and Natalie Day, is ‘Higher education as a public good.’ As we slowly emerge from a pandemic that has caused us to radically rethink what is important, both professionally and personally, we have seen that universities are a public good and that this is, as suggested, ‘a once-in-a-century opportunity to re-think the sector with a stronger focus on public good and social return.’

But how do we translate this laudable aspiration into practical application? One of the ways would be to rethink the notion of employability.

The context

In his 1963 Report on higher education, Lord Robbins said that ‘the good society deserves equality of opportunity for its citizens to become not merely good producers but also good men and women.’ Yet, since the publication of the Robbins Report there has been a growing emphasis on skills as a panacea for economic growth and an increasing dominance of the notion of employability, articulated primarily in terms of wealth generation. The persuasive power of the financial-economic based narrative of employability, reiterated over the years through a steady stream of rhetoric, reports, policies and practice, has resulted in an uncritical acceptance of the dominant political employability narrative and a tacit acceptance of the importance of, and need for, a financial return-on-investment and skills driven model of higher education.

The emergence and dominance of the political employability narrative

The concept of employability predates contemporary definitions, linking back to the ‘Third Way’ policies of New Labour in the late 1990s, when there was a marked move in government discourse away from ‘employment’ to ‘employment opportunities’ and ‘employability’. Tony Blair’s New Labour Government shifted the emphasis away from historical aspirations of securing full employment, promulgating instead the idea of ‘employment opportunity for all – the modern definition of full employment for the 21st Century.’ The concept of employment opportunities, rather than full employment per se, became central to the New Labour Government’s socioeconomic strategy. This strategy was, in part, a response to the significant social and economic changes that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, most notably with regard to the changes in employer demand, in the context of what was referred to by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as the ‘knowledge-based economy’. This necessitated a move away from predominately male, full-time manual workers, towards higher level skills and qualifications and a shift towards part-time and flexible work practices.

It was around this time that the notion of employability, with its origins firmly rooted in a labour market context and aimed at getting those classed as unemployed into, or back into, the workforce, began to appear in an education context. The Department for Employment and Education reported on its aim to ‘build security through employability’ in its 1997 strategy, ‘Learning and Working Together for the Future’. Through this strategy, universities became explicitly linked to the notion of employability and successive governments have utilised the concept of employability, brokered by universities, to drive through labour market and economic growth policies, arguably at the expense of the broader considerations of the value and purpose of higher education. Through policy and practice, there has been a gradual but significant shift in the role of universities, from contributing to economic growth to assuming an ‘explicit responsibility’ for it.

This procrustean refashioning of higher education to fit political priorities has resulted in a one dimensional discourse that depicts a reductionist view of the sector and undermines and diminishes the potential richness of the concept of employability and the broader role and value of universities. The absence of a sectoral counter-narrative has allowed the contemporary debate to be hijacked by a dominant, political employability and skills narrative which has so far failed to deliver. This failure is evidenced by the Industrial Strategy Commission who stated that:

agreement that skills are important has not led to either consensus or consistency on how to achieve better skills or deploy them. A recent report from the Institute for Government described further education and skills reform as “the worst failure of domestic British public policy since the Second World War”.

There has been a steady shift in political discourse, to the extent that the holistic view of the purpose of higher education, communicated in the Robbins Report of 1963 and the Dearing Report of 1997, has diminished almost to the point of extinction. The prevailing political employability narrative is based on a conception of prosperity and human flourishing that is articulated predominantly in terms of wealth generation and has little do with ‘the ideas about what higher education and learning is for.’ This has some significant implications for the higher education sector.

Implications for the higher education sector

One of the implications of the prevailing employability narrative is to do with metrics. Metrics are most commonly associated with the world of commerce where the data generated are routinely used for measuring success, primarily in terms of profit. Universities are now operating in a multi-provider, competitive market place, where benchmarking and positional competition have become commonplace. Consequently, metrics have assumed an ever-increasing importance and influence, evidenced by the introduction of the regulator for higher education, the Office for Students (OfS). An example would be the use of graduate earnings as a benchmark for success. This metric is highly contested and, in a post-pandemic context, probably pointless. The OECD’s Director of Education and Skills has asserted that:

earnings returns [is] a very narrow, very limited, very instrumental view [as] earnings are a mix of supply and demand factors: you never know to what extent the high earnings… simply reflect skill demand as opposed to the quality of higher education.

The sector must be allowed to have input into the creation of metrics that are meaningful and achievable – and to making sure that the important is measurable, rather than the measurable important.

Another significant implication relates to labour market realities and other influencing factors affecting a graduate’s ability to secure employment, such as personal circumstances, status of the university attended and subject studied. These factors are largely absent in the political employability narrative. It is crucial that these are taken into account, not least because, in the words of the late David Watson:

most of the things that those outside the academy say [universities] should be supplying in terms of education and training are not only out of the higher education institutions’ control, but also poorly understood and ideologically loaded.

Failure to mention these realities means that the employability narrative is, at the very least, disingenuous. It raises false expectations and hopes which, in turn, may contribute to a blame culture where individuals are perceived to be at fault if they are unable to find employment. This blame may then be passed on to universities. In addition, the fact that attending university normally comes immediately before first, full-time employment ‘leads people to the belief that it is the major or even the only influence on employability’.

A third implication concerns skills. The skills imperative is evident in the government’s push to promote vocational education. The ambitious target of achieving three million apprenticeships by 2020 was already nowhere near being achieved, even before the appearance of Covid-19. Although current discussions around a cap on student numbers, and what has been referred to as a ‘FE future’ , are situated within the wider pandemic context, the direction of travel has already been indicated. For example, the observation made by the Principal of King’s College London, Professor Ed Byrne, who stated that:

some [House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee] members were concerned that the 50 per cent participation in higher education target was, in fact, undermining both the esteem and level of investment in the unit of resource connected to vocational and technical pathways outside a higher education setting.

Similarly, Robert Halfon MP said that ‘existing universities that do not provide a good return on academic courses could reinvent themselves as centres of technical excellence.’ The prevailing vocational and skills focused narrative implicates universities into a skills-based, training model of education most commonly associated with further education and threatens to radically erode the boundaries between higher and further education.

Conclusion

The purpose of education is life-enhancing: it contributes to the whole quality of life. This recognition of the purpose of higher education in the development of our people, our society, and our economy is central to our vision.

The dominant, instrumentally and financially focused employability narrative has not only infiltrated the collective consciousness but also profoundly influenced views about the fundamental purpose of higher education and the role of universities.

It is vital, therefore, to take advantage of this ‘once-in-a-century opportunity to re-think the sector with a stronger focus on public good and social return.’ The prevailing reductive and one-dimensional employability narrative must be enriched by recognition and inclusion of the non-financial aspects of human flourishing that underpin the notions of public good and social return – notions which are fundamental to the ethos of all universities. Reshaping the narrative in this way will allow for the emphasis to move away from predominantly financial considerations of what employability can bring to the person, towards what the person can bring to employability – to the benefit of the individual, the economy and society as a whole.

The time has come to create a different narrative for a different era.

9 comments

  1. Doug Cole says:

    Great piece, very much aligning with my own thoughts over recent years, my PhD research and a book chapter published last year with Rafe Hallett on the language of employability. At NTU we are soon to begin testing a new research informed, animated and more holistic 3D model of employability, highlighting a combination of several dimensions for learning, each critical to support success not only in the work place, but in life more broadly. Moving beyond the restrictive narrative of ‘skills’ and ‘a single job’ which sadly dominates currently. There is an urgent need for a shift in this narrative if we truly aspire to support learners of all ages to reach their full potential in the future.

  2. Albert Wright says:

    I also agree.
    We must look to promote a more holistic perspective for part of the Higher Education sector rather than the idea of a degree factory for better jobs.

    The role of these Universities would be to help their students become better citizens/ people/ leaders/ thinkers/ catalysts / educators/ influencers / advocates / mentors and role models.

    This would provide a balance in the sector alongside the high level skills development institutions and those Universities with a focus on education for a higher Gross Domestic Product creators.

    The Good Life for many will only come from a pluralistic society

  3. Thank you, Audrey, for your insightful and valuable article. There is not a single word I would disagree with, although I wouldn’t want to go too far down a route of thinking we much choose between employability versus public good. I don’t believe that is your argument, but it is one that people often seem to adopt.
    Some people regard the emphasis on employability is coldly instrumental and at odds with some higher Platonic learning. I believe that juxtaposition arises largely out a mistaken confusion between employability and employment. They are not the same. (I wrote more about this in my 2015 paper for HEPI, ‘Employability: Degrees of value’.)
    I would rather argue that, ideally, employability and public good are different aspects of the same high-quality higher education system. They are both about developing the attributes (skills, knowledge, character) that mean that people can be of service to those around them.
    There are some forms of service which are enterprising and financially lucrative if they meet a commercial demand. Their contribution is largely economic, but in doing so, they are providing jobs and goods or service which, presumably (based on the demand) enhance people’s lives. Other forms of service will be selfless, financially ill-rewarded, but no less valuable. Still other forms will make cultural or creative contributions.
    Trying to measure the value of these forms of service relative to each other is a devastatingly pointless exercise and, in particular, trying to use graduate earnings as a proxy for that exercise is a devastatingly inept way of attempting to do the devastatingly pointless.
    What is needed for society is the aggregate of all these forms of service. Therefore what both employability AND public good mean in the context of higher education is a system that promotes a deep and diverse set of the attributes that allow graduates to be of service. So, yes, that means STEM skills and business skills, but it also means creativity, integrity, a sense of civil duty and flexible skills that can adapt to whatever the future throws both at individuals and at society.

  4. GARY MACKEAN says:

    Very interesting and thought provoking indeed. Well said Doctor Songhurst.

  5. Cath Brown says:

    Excellent article – the employability narrative misses so much about what is (or should be) good and worthwhile in Higher Education (and indeed in education more generally)

  6. albert wright says:

    Johnny Rich, I think you and I are on the same page, or at least in the same chapter.

    However, I am wondering if the development of “the attributes that allow graduates to be of service” are better formed by more individualised / group education, perhaps even in different institutions.

    Can the current undergraduate degree deliver this alongside skills development and career preparation for the same individual at one institution or does the student have to choose between different modules, or even courses or even Universities.

  7. Audrey Songhurst says:

    Thanks to you all for your comments. Pleased the piece is stimulating further discussion. There is is so much food for thought that I can’t cover it all here! I will just reassure Johnny that I absolutely agree that it’s not an either/or when it comes to employability and higher education. It’s a much more complex and nuanced relationship, hence my comment about the current narrative undermining and diminishing the potential richness of the concept of employability. It’s about getting the balance right in what is (or should be) a symbiotic relationship.

  8. Interesting question, Albert, and one to which I do not have an absolute answer – probably because I don’t know enough, but possibly because there isn’t one single answer. My impulse is to say that what matters is a diversity of approaches: the best way to be of service is to fill a gap and the most likely way of developing someone who can fill a gap left by existing provision is not to replicate the existing provision. (That’s not to say that we should constantly stop doing whatever is tried and tested, but rather that we should keep innovating while at the same time finding a balance that maintains effective student learning experiences.)

  9. Audrey Songhurst says:

    Thanks to you all for your comments. I’m glad the piece stimulated some further discussion on a subject you are all clearly passionate about. Just to reassure Johnny, I agree that it’s not an either/or when it comes to employability and higher education. The relationship is, of course, multi-faceted and much more complex and nuanced than the prevailing discourse would have us believe. Hence my comment about the potential richness of the concept of employability being undermined and impoverished. Ultimately, it is (or should be) a symbiotic relationship.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.