The final contribution to this weekly series of blogs on employability was written by Saskia Loer Hansen, Interim Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive, and Professor Kathy Daniels, Associate Pro-Vice Chancellor (Engagement) at Aston University.
Over the last four months, a number of colleagues from across the higher education sector have shared their experiences of working with employability initiatives or policy in the UK. There have been examples of exciting employability initiatives, and there has been debate about the concept of employability and what this means for those working and studying in higher education. As this series of blogs draws to an end, what can we conclude about employability policy?
Current policy scene
As Lizzy Woodfield and Rachel McIntosh so clearly explained in the second blog of the series, policy in England relating to employability has evolved steadily over recent years. Currently, this is culminating in the Office for Students (OfS) proposing to set challenging, minimum ‘numerical thresholds’ for student and graduate outcomes. Alongside other controls, providers will be measured against the threshold for students progressing to managerial or professional employment, or further study, 15 months after completing their course and providers who do not meet the targets could be subject to regulatory attention. The measure of ‘success’ relates to the employment students achieve.
If we look further afield, we see that this approach is not particularly unique. In Australia the introduction to the Higher Education Support Amendment (Job-Ready Graduates Supporting Regional and Remote Students Bill) 2020 reads, ‘The Bill contains measures that will encourage higher education providers to produce job-ready graduates’. In the subsequent Act part 2, item 3 sets out a legal requirement on universities for ‘engagement with industry and the local community to enable graduates to thrive in the workforce’.
In New Zealand we see less regulatory focus on employment thresholds and more focus on engaging in learning as an instrument for achieving graduate outcomes. Universities in New Zealand are required to state expected outcomes from qualifications and use core graduate attributes or profiles as means to inform programme design and evaluation. There is an emphasis on supporting groups of students who underachieve in their studies. For example, there is government focus on supporting Māori and Pacific students, achieved through allocating targeted funds and requiring institutions to support these students to succeed.
What is policy and regulation asking universities to do?
The Office for Students’ proposed measures focus on graduates being in jobs of a ‘graduate level’, or further study across all degree levels. This sharpened regulation is challenging universities, therefore, to think even more carefully about success in the context of employment.
However, as noted in the first blog in this series, there is a difference between employment and employability. The Higher Education Academy, in their 2012 Pedagogy for Employability, defined employment as the graduate outcome which universities measure, and employability as a ‘range of knowledge, skills and attributes which support continued learning and career development’.
By focusing the measures of success on the jobs that students have 15 months after graduation is policy forcing us to think about employment and not employability, and, if so, is this a problem?
What should the regulator measure?
How do we define a successful graduate? Is it the graduate who gets the job in a top law firm or the graduate who rises to the top of a large corporation in a leadership position? Are these individuals more successful than a graduate who decides that the corporate life is not for them, and takes a job that they find fulfilling and interesting, but is not ‘graduate level’? Is the graduate who studies at university and then decides they want to become an artist, becomes a chef or a plumber less successful than an engineer or a lawyer? How do we define a ‘graduate level’ job, and are we saying that not having a ‘graduate level’ job means that the university education has been wasted? If we return to the Office for Students’ metrics is there a risk that higher education institutions (HEIs) might conclude that the artist and the chef are less successful because they are not going to contribute to their alma mater achieving the minimum threshold for graduate outcomes?
If we conclude that employment outcomes are not the only measure of success, we then have to ask what we should measure. This is difficult because many employability skills are difficult to quantify. For example, the young person who leaves home to attend university, lives independently, budgets successfully and manages their time effectively to study and enjoy the social aspect of university has developed essential skills that will be beneficial in employment. However, these fundamental skills of engaging successfully with the university experience are not directly assessed and they would be difficult to measure. The Office for Students does require higher education institutions to measure degree completion rates, but this is just measuring those who get to the end of a degree programme successfully and does not attempt to measure the ‘softer’ skills acquired along the way (although the proposed measures in the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework go some way to measuring this by looking at educational gains).
Levelling the opportunity
Although we might conclude that focusing on the employment outcome is too narrow a measure, it would be wrong to totally reject it as an important metric. Many young people will attend university with the view that it will pave their way to a better job than they would otherwise achieve. How do universities work better to enable students to succeed both in terms of finding employment and building rounded skills that support lifelong learning and career shifts?
In the fourth blog in the series Catherine O’Connor explained how Leeds Trinity University has changed their approach to placements and work-based learning to make it more accessible to all students. They have found students are not ready for work experiences at the same stage of their undergraduate career. The networks that students have access to, and the experiences that they had pre-university, contribute to determining their success in work placements.
If employability is all about the underpinning skills that a student needs to be successful, HEIs have to acknowledge that students enter university with differing levels of such skills, as Jim Dickinson explains so eloquently in his Wonkhe article. Consequently, the interventions universities put in place to develop ‘employability’ should not be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ but should take account of these differences and contribute to ‘levelling the playing field’.
Policy for employability
If the measures that focus on employment outcomes are too narrow, what should government policy and regulation be requiring of universities? To answer that question, we need to come back to the purpose of a university which is multi-faceted, focusing on knowledge creation and knowledge exchange, and the delivery of a range of education activities that equip students with knowledge and skills. In this context, do universities exist to create ‘oven-ready’ graduates, who have the specific specialist skills that employers want so they can go straight into employment, or to develop well-rounded people, with a passion for learning and a range of soft skills which will enable them to manage their lives successfully, earn a living and do what they have a passion for?
This should not be a binary choice, but too sharp a focus on ‘graduate outcomes’ might result in too much focus on ‘oven-ready’ graduates, and not enough of the active lifelong learners who can deal with changing career circumstances. Professor Pete Hawkins makes a similar observation by stating, ‘to be employed is to be at risk, to be employable is to be secure’.
The metrics put in place to measure ‘graduate success’ go a long way in dictating how HEIs will focus their activities, and therefore need careful thought to avoid unintended consequences or too much focus on the specific employment outcome over the wider set of employability skills that enable graduates to be successful lifelong learners and employable no matter what the labour market is like.
It has been inspiring to see the many examples of what universities are doing to support their students to be equipped for success in the labour market as the blogs have appeared week by week, and any shifts in policy will hopefully continue to enable a rich and diverse set of practices across the sector reflecting that universities have different segments of student learners and different regional contexts. We benefit from learning from each other within the UK in best supporting our students to succeed in their career and life journeys, and, indeed, it is important that we look at what other higher education systems around the world are doing to stimulate great employability outcomes for their students.
Exploring employability further
Employability is a complex topic and has been explored from a number of different angles in the series of blogs. This work is now being developed further, and we are currently editing a book containing material from 65 colleagues across the world, looking at employability in more depth and drawing further on learnings from outside of the UK to further build our practice and to get even better at supporting our students to succeed in employment as well as employability.
Edward Elgar Publishing will be publishing the book, How to Enable the Employability of University Graduatesedited by Saskia Loer Hansen and Kathy Daniels in 2023. To obtain a 50 per cent discount on advance orders please contact [email protected].