In the very first paragraph of last month’s Green Paper on English higher education, the government declares an intention to “provide greater focus on graduate employability”. Yet this rhetoric is not matched with any proposals to assess, let alone enhance, employability.
Take, for example, the issue of metrics. Having failed to introduce differential tuition fees in 2012, the government’s plan B is to allow fee rises for universities that offer “excellent” teaching, as assessed in the teaching excellence framework. This will be judged using “common metrics”, but none of the three proposed so far relates to employability. Sure, there is the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, which records the proportion of graduates in employment six months after graduation, but this is a measure of employment, not employability. The words must not be confused. In a recession, for example, employment can crash, but employability may rise as people need to compete harder for available work.
Employability is that set of attributes that makes a graduate worth employing: how well a student’s learning matches with what the labour market needs. It is the number one outcome that, in increasing proportions, prospective students expect to get from higher education. It is also integral to the cost to the public purse of student loans that are never repaid.
In a paper that I have written for the Higher Education Policy Institute, “Employability: degrees of value”, published this week, I suggest ways to create a metric of employability for the TEF. Key to this is agreeing a common definition that cuts through the Babel-like babble that currently prevents students from recognising the attributes they need to acquire, academics from supporting their development and employers from identifying the graduates who meet their needs.
My definition comprises three elements. The first is knowledge, the teaching of which is higher education’s speciality. The second is more controversial. I have provocatively called it “social capital”, but I accept that that is too narrow a term to cover a huge range of attitudes and behaviours – not to mention attributes such as class, gender, age, ethnicity, accent and appearance – that, rightly or wrongly, make a person attractive to employers. But it at least highlights the inherent advantage that some universities can gain in this area through their selection processes – and the deep implications that this has for access policies.
The third element is skills. Higher education has a better record than many realise in developing students’ hard (job-specific) and soft (transferable) skills. This is evidenced, apart from anything else, by the fact that employers stubbornly pay higher wages to graduates even though the supply has been rising steadily for decades. Different courses develop students’ skill sets differently. But that’s no bad thing. Not all careers require every skill in equal and superlative abundance. Having a distinctive skill set can aid employability, helping graduates and employers achieve a better match with each other. My proposed metric for employability focuses on a scoring mechanism for the diverse skill sets that different courses can develop.
Above all else, it is the raising of students’ self-awareness about employability that develops it. Therefore, being more transparent about employability as a clear, simple and deliberate goal of a degree course will help. Since it is a form of personal development, helping students to understand the various ways they have benefited should be a welcome feature of any course, whatever the students’ initial reasons for studying it.
In particular, being more upfront about employability could ease the scandal of students undertaking certain degrees based on course titles that suggest they will lead to particular careers, but where there are simply not enough jobs in those sectors to go around. Putting students “at the heart of the system”, as the last government phrased it, creates a supply of courses based on the demand of students, not of employers. Meanwhile, some labour market sectors have gaping skills shortages.
Raising awareness helps academics to engage with employability, too. It is a topic many are uneasy with at best, seeing it as an instrumentalist intrusion on the pursuit of understanding. Having a simple and common language to describe employability will help them better embed the development of the relevant skills, attitudes and behaviours into their programme design without forcing anyone to change their course content.
In the UK, the Higher Education Academy has already been leading a programme of embedding employability into the curriculum. Meanwhile, Push (the not-for-profit organisation I run) has created some innovative initiatives to build students’ enthusiasm and engagement with what employers will want from them.
But the sector needs to do more to overcome students’ tendency to see a degree merely as a career passport – a proxy for employability – and connect them, instead, with the thing itself: the real value that they will be able to offer to an employer. Dry though the word sounds, employability, at its heart, is about having a rewarding future. And that is something we neglect at our peril.
Johnny Rich is chief executive of Push, an organisation that supports students’ choices and skills. He is also a director of the Higher Education Academy.