I sympathise with Steve Sarson (“Students are sent to the rat race maze: syllabus is history”, Opinion, 21 March). Like him, I teach history undergraduates and I agree that it is improper for employability skills - writing CVs and the like - to be embedded in seminars as doing so steals valuable time from teaching. Similarly I do not think that basic training for the world of work should win students credits that count towards their degrees.
Unlike Sarson, I am also the employability director for my department, tasked with improving students’ chances of securing jobs or study places within six months of graduation (the standard metric). It is hard to know what to do, but that does not mean we should do nothing or that the “employability agenda” will go away.
Prospective students at our open days - and, increasingly, concerned parents, too - would like to know what a degree will do for them. No one in higher education wants to commercialise learning in the way Sarson fears, but it is a fact that if one pays for something, one expects it to have discernible value.
Ideally, all students would take the initiative early on to inform themselves of their options, engage actively with their institutions’ careers services, take positive steps to secure work experience and so on. None of this would have to spoil the halcyon days of university: a little might go a long way.
The problem is that many students do not do this, and yet we spend more and more time and money on events that mostly attract those who are already self-motivated. It is the diffident and inert remainder that we need to reach, which is one reason why, on the surface, compulsory employability teaching seems attractive.
Apart from anything else, however, these measures will not work. Students are most likely to feel that they have taken the “employability module”, tick it off the list and forget it. We might think instead that it is incumbent on all lecturers to foster in students an awareness of life after graduation and an inclination to plan for it. It should not take much, and it is good for the subject (not least in the arts and humanities) to encourage reflection about the abstract skills being learned, as well as good for students’ powers of self-promotion in job interviews.
More universities might consider awarding skills diplomas separate from degrees and earned gradually through attendance at employability events, internships and so on across three years. Some purists and traditionalists will bridle at this, and employers may well attach little worth to such diplomas. It would also take time to set up and administrate. But a university where all undergraduates naturally engage in this sort of fairly low-level activity all the time would be one where, hopefully, we could create a culture in which taught employability components are no longer just undesirable but also unnecessary.
Professor of early modern history
School of History
University of East Anglia
Maybe Steve Sarson could capitalise on the hijacking of his seminar by asking his students to prepare CVs (highlighting both strengths and weaknesses) of historical figures who obtained unlikely roles. One thinks of Henry VIII applying to become head of the new Church of England in the 1530s, Winston Churchill becoming prime minister in 1940 - and maybe even Jesus Christ founding a major belief system.
Peter B. Baker