Beware the student employability agenda, debate hears

The promotion of student employability by universities is “a problem” and the growing power of the student voice amounts to “surveillance” of lecturers, an academic has warned.

February 19, 2013

Glenn Rikowski, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Northampton, argued during a debate on the privatisation of education that state-controlled education “tries to get us to think in certain ways, principally as future labour power”.

“My university is the number one university in the land for employability. I see that as a problem. Most people who I work with are very proud of this,” he told ‘Education for sale: a debate on the privatisation of education’, held at the University of East London on 13 February.

Some of his concerns were echoed by Claire Fox, the director of the Institute of Ideas, who was chairing the session.

Citing the employability agenda as a “bugbear” of hers, Ms Fox said: “I haven’t really seen the corporate sector imposing the employability agenda on universities but there’s been huge academic enthusiasm.”

She was “tempted” to tell universities to become private “so they didn’t have to put up with ticking the boxes like employability and all the other instrumental arguments that are put forward for higher education. I want to be free from that.”

Ms Fox added that she had “sympathy” for Anthony Grayling, master of the private New College of the Humanities, because he had said, in her paraphrase: “I’m not having any of this employability and skills stuff.”

“Certainly rhetorically what they [the New College of the Humanities] said was liberal arts education is good, knowledge for its own sake [is good],” she added.

The £18,000 a year London based institution teaches a broad liberal arts curriculum and uses University of London degrees.

Dr Rikowski also criticised the burgeoning power of the “student voice” in universities, because it served to “divide staff from students”.

“Student voice is a disciplinary, surveillance issue…it gives them [students] a basis on which to make a whole series of complaints and keep staff on their toes,” he said.

Staff begin to resent this and could end up disliking students, he added. “That’s not a very healthy environment.”

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