The employability agenda corrupts educational and personal values

Knowledge is commodified by the prioritisation of economic imperatives over social and democratic goals in educational policymaking, says Zahid Naz

四月 6, 2024
Students in a lecture about market research, symbolising employability
Source: iStock

The recent decline in humanities and social science enrolments at English universities and the corresponding closures of departments are not simply a coincidence. The state of affairs is an inevitable consequence of the business-focused policy frameworks within which universities are now situated.

The creation of the Office for Students by the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act to “encourage competition between English higher education providers” and to “promote value for money” has been particularly instrumental in promoting a mercantile narrative that has forced universities to close departments and courses that have not been recruiting well.

The increasing trend of young people opting to study business, finance, science and computing at A level and at university stems from the discourse of employability. When former education secretary Justine Greening describes universities as “engines of social mobility”, she gives popular impetus to the idea that the role of universities should be no more than producing skilled graduates who are work-ready and can contribute to regional and national economies.

Accordingly, the accumulation of wealth and the acquisition of material possessions become the sole indicators of purpose and success in life, compelling further education and sixth-form colleges, as well as universities, to prioritise financial outcomes for students over broader educational objectives.

While the degree of emphasis on employability varies among universities because of factors such as institutional goals, student demographics, industry partnerships and regional economic factors, there has been a notable increase in attention and investment in such initiatives in recent years. Examples include market-driven curricula, expanded career fairs, internship programmes and ever more industry partnerships, at multiple levels.

The zeitgeist’s prioritisation of technical over academic knowledge devalues the intellectual independence, imagination and civic engagement that are vital for democratic societies and that arise most commonly through the study of disciplines that critically and reflexively approach societal issues, such as history, politics and philosophy.

Moreover, when the logic of profit and employment becomes the primary rationale for students’ choices of subjects, it prioritises skills and knowledge deemed valuable by the market, while marginalising alternative forms of knowledge and modes of being. An example would be postmodernist approaches to research methods, which question traditional, so-called evidence-based methodologies in social sciences by deconstructing grand narratives and acknowledging the subjectivity and plurality of knowledge.

The discourse of “value for money” has become a primary metric in policy initiatives such as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), whereby a university’s teaching quality is regularly evaluated based on the employment outcomes of its graduates. This, again, contributes to the devaluation of certain non-science and non-finance subjects, prompting universities to consider eliminating them.

There is nothing inherently wrong with universities’ transition from centres of education and intellectual development to gatekeepers and facilitators of employment. These two purposes are not mutually exclusive: disciplines such as medicine and law have long blended practical training with academic learning, showing that prioritising professional results does not make education less scholarly.

But the hyperfocus on employability may exacerbate social inequality by disproportionately benefiting those already privileged with access to resources and opportunities, while further marginalising those who face systemic barriers to employment and upward mobility. In that sense, the closure of arts and humanities programmes in universities marks the onset of restricted educational opportunities and pathways, disproportionately affecting disadvantaged groups and perpetuating social stratification.

The prioritisation of economic imperatives over broader social and democratic goals in educational policymaking, above all, is leading to the commodification of education and the instrumentalisation of knowledge. That is why individuals and institutions feel they must conform to externally imposed metrics of success, such as performance metrics and league tables based on employability outcomes. This culture needs to be unsettled.

Employability and graduate destinations are undeniably important, but they should not be universities’ sole emphasis. The challenge is not to prioritise one set of disciplines over others, but rather to cultivate attention to the conditions under which education engenders and fosters social justice, equity and democratic participation.

Of course, critical thinking and creativity are valued by employers as much as specific subject knowledge is. But these skills should be cultivated in ways that align with diverse societal needs, extending beyond material concerns and emphasising citizenship and broader humanistic values – not just fitness to undertake a certain professional role.

Zahid Naz is a lecturer in academic and professional education at Queen Mary University of London.



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Reader's comments (3)

I'm somewhat disappointed that this article starts well, and makes some good points, but its let down by making it about science vs humanities. While there is some understandable worry about the closure of departments in the humanities, the pressure to be more relevant and to prioritise "employability" is no less strong in the Sciences. Those who try to understand the underlying nature of existence, such as pure mathematicians, astrophysicists, string theorists, systems biologists, developmental biologists, etc as a worthy endeavour in its own right are also in trouble, and while their disciplines are not in danger of being closed, there is a refocusing within the disciplines to make science less about glorying in the wonder of the universe, and making it more instrumental. In addition, some of the most threatened departments across the country are chemistry departments. And far from there being an increasing trend for students to select Science subjects at A-level the number of students taking A-level Physics, Chemistry and Biology is falling, with Chemistry falling particularly fast.
How does the study of "business, finance, science and computing at A level and at university" equate to "the accumulation of wealth and the acquisition of material possessions" as "the sole indicators of purpose and success in life"..?
The link is clear as the utilitarian approach to education, emphasising direct career outcomes and material gains, ultimately reinforces the prevailing societal notion that the accumulation of material wealth constitutes the primary purpose of life. The Department for Education's push for a cap on "rip-off" university degrees suggests that a degree is seen primarily as a springboard into a career. Consequently, students may feel pressured to pursue subjects directly linked to potential job opportunities, viewing education solely as a means to acquire material gains like jobs or business opportunities. This sole focus on education-for-employment can overshadow other valuable aspects of education and personal development.