A student is in your office, and she wants your advice. Her father has arranged a high-powered internship at his hedge fund, which – if all goes well – will give her the experience, contacts and references she will need to get a well-paid job in finance when she graduates from university. But to take it, she’ll have to turn down an alternative summer job: a stint answering phones and helping out at a local debt advice charity. How should you help her weigh up these opportunities?
This one decision won’t necessarily dictate your student’s future, and perhaps she won’t take your advice anyway. But she’s in your office, so now you have to think through the implications. Let’s say that she takes the internship and, soon enough, follows her father’s footsteps to an investment bank. Her high earnings will look good in your department’s graduate outcomes statistics. She’ll also be a contact who might help your future students claw their own way into finance. Maybe she’ll even become a major donor to your institution.
Or she might take the charity gig, and end up devoting herself to the unsung, poorly remunerated heroism of protecting people from predatory capitalism. Now she is much less likely to be helping your department hit its key performance indicators. She’ll never be able to fund a building or a fellowship with her name on it. She could still make a good case study for the website, but this time it’ll be about the way your department’s graduates contribute to social justice.
If you haven’t already thought about these kinds of issues, you probably need to start. It is now conventional wisdom among decision-makers in and out of governments in most nations that graduate career prospects should be at the top of every university’s list of priorities. For a long time, parents and universities encouraged applicants with the idea that a degree would be a ticket to secure, well-paid employment. Now, that way of thinking has come well and truly home to roost. To get a better job – a graduate job – is most students’ primary motivation. To help them get one, therefore, has become the institution’s most pressing responsibility. If a university (or a degree programme) can’t do that, then why would its customers continue to pay for its services?
The triumph of this way of thinking, the discourse of employability, is not something academics can continue to ignore. It is coming for us one way or another – whether via student demand, government fiat, management pressure or, most likely, an intractable tangle of all three. We need to think much more, and more publicly, about how we respond. This is not a question of superficial packaging or value-neutral policy. It is an everyday ethical question about the meaning and value of education.
Consider employability in terms of the debate over university funding. On one hand, you have universities and their constituent departments continually being asked to prepare their students to succeed in the workplace. Whatever the academic discipline of a given course, it should incorporate skills and experiences that future employers will value in their workers. Meanwhile, students should be taught how to articulate the value of their education in those same terms: as a set of accomplishments that make them more employable. All this makes for the smoothest possible transition between graduation and work. Universities craft ready-made employees.
On the other hand, you have a series of political decisions that have dramatically shifted the cost of higher education away from big corporate employers (and their wealthy owners) and on to the shoulders of students themselves. Employers get a programme of job training, designed to increase the efficiency of their workforce, paid for by their own future employees. At the same time, loaded with debt, students find their choices more and more constrained. They don’t need philosophy or history the way they need a decent job after they graduate. So that need comes to shape their whole experience, crowding out the other forms of personal growth university once offered.
There is no straightforward split here between vocational and non-vocational degrees, or between humanities and sciences. The discourse of employability can market every programme as a form of job training, and celebrate it too! Degrees in the arts and humanities can help impart so-called “soft skills” like creativity, persuasion and the ability to write in complete sentences. There is a whole genre of literature, both articles and books, about how the “useless” liberal arts could make you a sought-after employee – and might even be more useful in an increasingly computer-automated world than a degree in the hard sciences.
Whether hard or soft, though, “skills” are only one aspect of the employability conundrum. Its core is better described as an attitude. The discourse of employability is about how students (and, as the providers of a service to students, universities and their staff) orient themselves towards their education, to the labour market and to the world at large. What kind of people do our students want to be? Who do we want to help them become? In the age of employability, we are at risk of spending so much effort trying to divine what the employers want that we forget to wonder what we want ourselves.
A good job, after all, means different things to different people. That’s the crux of the dilemma confronting the student in your office. One possible approach to the question has been pioneered by a group of consequentialist philosophers in Oxford and California whose organisation, 80,000 Hours, gives a very special kind of careers advice. Pointing out that many young people “want to make a difference with their careers”, not just make money, they aim to help them work out how they can make the biggest possible positive impact on the world. (The name, by the way, is roughly how much of our lifetimes each of us will spend working. Best not to think about it too much...)
The group has some fairly unusual advice for would-be do-gooders. Probably their most controversial idea is called “earning to give”: in short, taking a very well-paid job in order to give most of your income to high-impact anti-poverty charities. A banker making millions could fund a team of doctors without borders, and while there are plenty of good candidates to become doctors, there are few bankers who’d use their money that way. Much more impactful, then, to become one of the latter – if that path is open to you.
Some critics of “earning to give” point out that it relies on perpetuating the very system of exploitation whose wounds it ostensibly seeks to heal. Others, diverging from the consequentialist approach to ethics, say that a high-paid but socially destructive job (like helping to run an oil company) can never be justified, no matter what you do with the rewards. This is not the place to resolve the dispute, of course. What I do want to note, though, is that both the original suggestion and its rebuttals rely on the disciplined thought cultivated by the study of humanities and social sciences.
Needless to say, there is far too little of this kind of debate going on in university careers centres. In recent years, the UK government, for instance, has sharpened the discourse of employability to a fine point, filing away the complexity until we’re left with a straightforward question: which degrees produce the graduates who earn the most money? We heard the echo of those ideas in Brazil in April, as the new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, justified cuts to philosophy and sociology programmes by claiming that a university degree should “provide a craft that generates income”. The policy equivalent of an ice pick to the back of the head, this approach erases both the real value of higher education and the vast gulf between an individual’s earnings and their social contribution. Our response as workers and thinkers in higher education must be to think and talk more, not just about what university offers but about what constitutes a good life after graduation.
Once upon a time, it was quite possible to say that our students’ career choices were none of our business. We taught them art history, computer science or whatever, and as long as we taught it well, our job was done. An academic’s responsibility was to initiate her students into a discipline, imparting its associated knowledge and techniques – and, for some, hopefully sparking lifelong engagement with an intellectual tradition. What a student might do with those gifts was entirely their own concern. No longer. Employability discourse has wiped away the line between degree programme and career development. In doing so, it has placed new responsibilities on all of us.
We shouldn’t exaggerate the power we have over students’ minds. We don’t get to choose the way they live their lives. But the premise of employability discourse is that students’ experience at university has a substantial impact on their later choices. That means that the way we talk about employment and career options matters, and so does the type of opportunity we offer or encourage. Should universities pursue employability-based partnerships with companies, like McKinsey or BAE Systems, that have served dictators and made wars more deadly? When we build “entrepreneurship” into the curriculum, how should we deal with the collateral damage of disruptive innovation?
These questions, and a hundred others like them, can’t simply be left to careers service professionals and senior managers. As every individual academic and every course we teach come to be integrated into the employability agenda, they will become ethical considerations that we all have to address. We need to help students navigate the world of work as it is: one in which the greatest rewards all too frequently flow to the most callous and exploitative participants; where far too many jobs seem to serve no good purpose whatsoever; and where work that really does do good – like caring for the elderly and children – is often the lowest paid.
At its best, higher education can help shape citizens who will dismantle that world and rebuild it on the basis of new, better values. An attitude of open-ended, critical enquiry may be the greatest gift a university can cultivate among its students (and its staff as well). It may also be one of the things our societies need most right now. When we’re invited to incorporate employability into our academic practice, then, I would advise that we respond with our own offer. The discourse and ethics of employability deserve our interest, our engagement and, most importantly, our ruthless criticism.
Tom Cutterham is a lecturer in United States history at the University of Birmingham. He is employability lead for the School of History and Cultures.
Print headline: Instilling the right work ethics
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