Coming to terms with transferable skills

Rather than resisting the growing emphasis on employability, academics should be seeking to drive the process, argues Benjamin Poore

July 28, 2016
Nate Kitch illustration (28 July 2016)
Source: Nate Kitch

Friedrich Nietzsche knew that working in a university required a strong stomach. Writing in his lecture series On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, published in 1872, he noted that we “must begin not with wonder but with horror, and anyone incapable of such a feeling should not touch pedagogical matters”.

Reading these recently reissued lectures for a review, it struck me that academics today suffer bouts of nausea for similar reasons to those of Nietzsche’s main characters, a pair of youthful malcontents who skive off classes to go and do some real philosophy (and pistol-shooting) in the woods.

The common theme is employability. This is clearly an unavoidable issue for the modern UK academic given the recent confirmation that data on graduate employment will be one of the metrics used in the teaching excellence framework. Of course, this is ludicrous: pay is not dictated by university departments but by sectoral norms. But the TEF is the endgame of a process that has seen employability stitched into myriad aspects of university life.

Academics proposing new modules are already obliged to specify what “transferable skills” these will instil. And, in a fortuitous convergence of events, my writing about Nietzsche was interrupted by a request from my department to develop a brand new module for the undergraduate English programme, titled “Livelihoods in English”. The idea is to build links between what we study in the seminar room and the world of employment beyond it.

I must admit I felt a little trepidatious. As a jumper-wearing Guardian reader, I spend most of my time fretting about how what we do in the university might push back against the captains of global capitalism, rather than trying to do the Charleston with them.

The relationship of education and employment comes under sustained attack in Nietzsche’s lecture series. He felt that culture had no business being subsumed into what he called “the struggle for life”, which is to say the sphere of mere physical subsistence. “No course of instruction that ends in a career, in breadwinning, leads to culture or true education,” he writes. Universities, in this view, exist to safeguard culture, philosophy and the arts from pragmatic and instrumental concerns.

But higher education is now a mass undertaking. Students who may not otherwise participate need to know that we take seriously the debt that they are taking on and what that will mean for their futures.

And in a world characterised by precarious conditions, internships and short-term contracts, we would surely be abdicating our responsibility as academics by trying to shut out this reality.

Mulling over these issues, I asked some former students what they thought. “Students chose to go to a university, not a job centre,” one highly successful former student rather surprisingly replied. He added that studying a subject for its own sake is “what naturally gives rise to those transferable skills”, and that employability “should never be the primary focus of the teaching and the degree”.

As an employer, he values the more holistic character of degree-level study “as it leaves room for the kind of lateral thinking and connection-making that leads to innovation and creative solutions to problems”. Turning decisions about teaching over to the demands of the job market could prove detrimental since “the market tends to be quite short-sighted and concerned with current needs”.

This relates to one of Nietzsche’s chief concerns. The Prussian education system of his day was principally geared towards producing bureaucrats and employees for the country’s enormous civil service; Nietzsche saw that as leading to greater conformity and homogeneity, and he lamented that “practically everyone has acquired the state’s cultural uniform”.

While the modern jobs market is dominated by the private rather than the public sector, there remain similar risks in understanding the intellectual particularity of subjects and disciplines in terms of generic categories of transferable skills. And, from the point of view of academics, it is the particular things our subjects do that we want our students to carry through to the world of work.

Indeed, I would go as far as to say that we have a duty to encourage our students to bring to the world at large the specialised forms of attention we teach. So, for my discipline, teaching employability might be about stressing that understanding language and point of view doesn’t just set you up to teach Macbeth to schoolchildren: it also gives you the tools to understand how reality can be wrapped up in more or less appealing packaging (no one can doubt the value of being able to sugar an unfavourable pill for the boss). Lest we forget, Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost had some fearsome powers of persuasion. Want to work in a profession that deals with symbolism or design? A deep knowledge of cultural and intellectual history might serve you pretty well.

Most importantly, departments and schools need to recognise that if there is to be ever-greater emphasis on employability, it would be far better to be driving this process than being passively subject to it, penning bitter jeremiads in these pages. That may entail difficult compromises but, to paraphrase a line from one of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, we academics need to be what Gotham needs right now, rather than the heroes it deserves.

Benjamin Poore is a teaching fellow in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University of London.

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