Employability agenda

April 4, 2013

In regards to Steve Sarson’s recent article on the “employability agenda” (“Students are sent to the rat race maze: syllabus is history”, Opinion, 21 March): let’s start by considering what employability is - and what it isn’t.

Employability is not just about getting a job: it is a continuing process that applies to us all. It does not help that the sector is judged according to the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) statistics, which indicate how many graduates have “graduate-level” jobs six months post-graduation. This is employment, not employability - there is a difference. Indeed, there are so many variables that affect the figures that institutions which insist that departments increase their DLHE percentages year on year are setting themselves up for a potential fall.

Another issue is “employability skills”. What is the difference between employability, transferable and generic skills? The answer is nothing: so why describe employability in these terms? Skills may be considered a component of employability, but they are not the only one. The danger is that programmes designed to develop skills in this area can often be reduced to meaningless box-ticking exercises.

You will never get everyone to agree on a single theory of employability, but some models help articulate the areas that are worth considering, and all go beyond skills, CV writing and work experience. It really doesn’t matter if you agree with the models or not: they are a starting point - adapt them for your own needs.

We have to agree what employability is in our subject areas, inform students and then map our provision accordingly, including recognising what we are already doing - and what we are not doing. Where are the gaps and how can we address them in terms of content, learning, teaching and assessment?

Employability isn’t an exact science and there is no numerical measurement: our alumni are the measure, where they are in 5, 10 or 15 years. If we start speaking a common language, not only would our students benefit but the employability agenda would also have a fighting chance.

Doug Cole
Employability project manager
Bucks New University


Regarding “Students are sent to the rat race maze: syllabus is history”: Swansea University Students’ Union makes no apology for pushing employability to the heart of the student experience. While we are committed to fighting for the best in learning and teaching, I believe that this now includes equipping students with the skills they need to compete in the global marketplace.

It is not enough to leave university knowing your subject matter. Students want and need jobs at the end of their degrees and employers want students to be productive members of their organisations. If our graduates are going to be successful in the world of work, universities need to get a grip on the employability agenda to equip students with the tools they need to succeed.

Swansea’s employability initiatives have been developed in partnership with the students’ union, and we are proud of working with the institution to provide the best opportunities we can for our students in the workforce. Our success is measured by the fact that 91 per cent of our graduates are in employment and/or further study within six months of graduating, and of those in work, 78 per cent are in graduate-level employment.

Despite these successes we will not rest on our laurels: we are determined to improve the figures by continuing to bridge the gap between the academy and the workplace.

However, there is room for debate about whether our approach is right or wrong: challenging the status quo can coexist with getting the job done. Earlier this year, the students’ union hosted a panel debate that included Steph Lloyd, president of NUS Wales, and Sir Terry Matthews, the billionaire business magnate and Swansea alumnus, about what the employability agenda should look like in Wales. I would now like to invite Steve Sarson to a debate this June during our Summer Employability Week about whether or not universities can and should teach employability.

Zahid Raja (@SwanseaRaja)
Education officer
Swansea University Students’ Union

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Reader's comments (4)

Zahid, I happily accept your invitation to debate the issue of employability in June. I’d like to repeat here, however, that I’m not against universities providing employability training. Our university, Swansea, recently recruited new careers office staff, and I’m very pleased it did. What I do oppose, though, is the teaching of CVs during class times in history courses (and other academic courses). First, it is unnecessary as there is plenty of time and opportunity outside of class time to promote employability. Second, because careers officers are better educated, trained and up-to-date in such matters than lecturers are and can ever be—and as they’re therefore better at it, why would you want us lecturers to do it? Third, and to me most important, employability training in the classroom (as opposed to transferrable skills training—and there is, for example, re Doug Cole’s letter, a difference between teaching students to write and teaching them to write CVs) forces the employability agenda on all students, as opposed to providing employability training for those who want it—and not forcing it on those who don’t. Universities always provided such training for students and should continue to do so and develop it as needs be. But alongside that, universities have provided and should continue to provide an arena in which students can think freely about their futures, even if that thinking does not fit an agenda set by the government’s Department of Business, Administration, and Skills, and even if they have different ideas about what it means to “succeed” than that of their Union’s Education Officer. In short, then, universities should indeed be “equipping students with the skills they need to compete in the global marketplace” for all those students who want it, but should also be open to the needs of those who do not want it and indeed for those who oppose it. So, I will answer your challenge to me by agreeing that universities should offer the best work-place training possible for those who want it. My challenge to you, however, is this: what, besides pressure to accept and conform, does your vision of university education offer to those students who do not agree with your definition of how to “succeed,” who do not accept the hegemony of the “global market” and its associated values and behaviours, and who may even wish to challenge those values and behaviours and perhaps even change the ways of the world?
Hi Steve, Brilliant – I look forward to it! Your first point re: time – I don’t think that is a fair assumption to make of all students – what of students with 30 hour contact time? What of student parents and those with caring responsibilities? Second: careers officers are better trained – but as are our employability champions who sit on the employability academy strategy board which is a direct interface with employers. Every course is different and as different skills when it comes to skills that ready people for work – I agree with Doug here when he says academics need to make the agenda their own. The reason why I don’t think it should be left to careers officers is because 7 careers officers can’t cater for 15000 students. Also, being signposted to go and seek help elsewhere is a barrier in itself. My view is that the biggest issue students’ face in this area is confidence. Realising and understanding that the skills we’ve learnt can be adapted to give us a competitive edge when it comes to applying for and getting on graduate jobs is crucial in developing that. Lecturers are best places to do that, not in some special seminar, but throughout learning and teaching. Careers advisors should be there when students need specialist advice to pursue a career that students have decided upon. Your third point - I see it as demonstrating how these skills can be used when students leave University – it’s basically going that one step further with what academics do with transferable skills. It’s now just more explicit and it being explicit makes students more aware what it’s about. I don’t disagree with you that the CV example you chose to write about is terrible (or even a detriment) but I do believe that linking transferable skills gained whilst doing a degree to the actual process of getting a graduate job is incredibly important in making sure that everyone has equal access to that training and information. I don’t accept the market. I don’t accept that students should be consumers but none of my views of what should come before the reality – which is that we’re in an unfair education system that creates winners and losers: http://youtu.be/zDZFcDGpL4U What does success look like in the system we’re in? Making sure that our students are the winners. To the students you refer to – I would welcome them to the Students’ Union so that they can help shape the ideas we put forward to our national union to build a new vision for the future of our education.
Hi Zahid, I look forward to it too. Good points—and it’ll be fun talking more about them with you. Just quickly for now, though. Certainly, some students are time-poor, but one could as easily argue that that means they can’t afford to lose their academic time. A difficult one, then.... Seven officers for 15,000 students is too few, so I hope we can hire more (using the huge fees students are forced to pay or, in our case, in part, that the Welsh Assembly has to stump up. Besides, I don’t see why academics should have to fill in for work we’re not trained for, though, especially when there are ever-increasing demands on our time, not least for more academic contact hours. Finally, while I agree we can do more to link transferrable skills to employability, I don’t think putting employability in the classroom is just “one step further with what academics do with transferable skills.” I fear that it sends messages that students are not here to learn history (or other academic disciplines) first and foremost, that they’re studying to get a job rather than to become inquiring, learned, and fulfilled human beings, and, ultimately, that students exist to serve the needs of business. And, what’s more, when lecturers are required to push those messages rather than maintain an arena for free thought, I fear that the real “agenda” behind “employability” is an ideological one that is intended to turn students into agents of the business world rather than free agents who might challenge the ways of the business world. Still, as I say, I really look forward to talking this over with you and others some more. Right now, though, I really should mark some essays!
This shows the great confusion of people in highered about employability. It is a hugely overrated issue that is used to overcome the clear failure of our economy to create enough jobs for our increasing number of graduates. Employability is simply the, short-term in my view, propensity of a graduate to find a job, if of course this job ever existed !

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