Employability is an ethical issue

Universities in most nations are now obliged to prioritise graduate career prospects, but how it should be approached depends on your view of the meaning of education. Academics need to think that through much more clearly, says Tom Cutterham

June 20, 2019
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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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Reader's comments (13)

We are told to act more like businesses. Would any other business accept being held responsible for a complex outcome that they have no real control over and involves innumerable other actors? Would a restaurant accept being held responsible for the health and obesity of a customer five years after they last eat there? if someone sells you a suit, are they responsible for whether the interview goes well and you get the job? In both cases, the business product or service may help or hinder the outcome, but it is far from being the only factor. Why do universities accept these extraneous responsibilities? Is it because VC's hanker after the much desired 'Sir' or 'Dame' title and these are only handed out to government Quislings?
I finished this article none the wiser as to whether the author thought helping students to develop skills that will stand them in good stead in the workplace is a good or bad thing. What I did feel though was being almost oppressed by the sanctimonious tone, with the author appearing to view highly paid jobs as socially useless - unless the person does penance by giving lots of money away - and implying that lowly paid jobs are conversely somehow almost automatically socially virtuous. I think it's a little bit more complex than that... And casting career choices and salary levels in 'moral' terms ( when most people's career choices are fundamentally about having to get a job to pay the bills) does not strike me as very helpful. I am left wondering where on this scale the author would place their own job? Among the socially meritorious or the socially useless? And on what basis would they arrive at that conclusion?
I think the article is pretty clear about the kinds of jobs I think are socially destructive. It gives the example of oil company executives, as well as naming two firms, McKinsey and BAE Systems. The main point, though, is to counter the position put forward by recent UK government rhetoric, that the best way to measure the success of universities is by measuring the pay-checks of their alumni. You don't have to turn that completely upside down to accept that it's a morally stunted vision of what universities are all about.
Let's be honest here . Daddy and his friends are probably going to get her a job in Finance anyway. Playing "charity games" is what they would expect from a daughter so there is no real risk to her from doing this. What this reveals says more about the sorts of students that he deals with and, as such, very little about the more difficult choices faced by working class student - to work and contribute to the family or study. When more and more universities are creating punitive attendance policies which punish those who need to work there are more important ethical issues than advising the privileged few on the choices they have. Most students just dont get this level of choice and the ones that do, dont really need our support to get jobs.
I'm suspecting that the author hasn't spoken to many University Careers Advisers before making these judgements. First and foremost our work is student-centred, so we talk with the student about what their values are and how they can work to a future job that allows them to best express those. So in this case, it might well be that the best option is to work with the charity - but we do also introduce the 80,000 hours philosophy of 'money first, philanthropy later' - and, crucially, empower the student to make their own choice as to which is best. And I suggest he looks at the work of Tristram Hooley on careers guidance for social justice as well. I'd also invite the author to consider whether Careers Services think employment statistics are a good idea too!
Thanks for the tip on the book edited by Tristram Hooley, that looks really interesting. I'd suggest that university has a substantial role in *forming* students' values, so it's not just about finding out "what their values are" and then helping apply them. The piece argues that employability discourse (alongside all sorts of other pressures!) has a pretty bad effect on the value-forming work universities do.
I completely agree there! I'd just hate you to think that Careers Services were advocating well-paid jobs above all else. Part of our work is to try and counter the league-table-pressure part of the employability discourse and also to emphasise the fact that value comes from a lot more than salary!
This is a timely article as I try to help this year's graduates make the contacts that will help them develop and grow. At Christmas my daughter, an LSE graduate, had just the ethical choice to make invited to two second interviews one for a paralegal post with a human rights law firm in the City (with the opportunity to qualify as a solicitor) and the other with a Charity hosting meals using 'waste food from retailers. As an academic and parent the the law opportunity seemed worth pursuing - as her work could make a difference. She choose the charity. They offered her the post and she could see how her work has value and impact now. The law route was full of - could, should, would make a difference if and when. With so many graduates - those could and should prospects, maybe very transitory. In any case, why should the few make and be paid so much? (Some how football academies come to mind and the youngster they train so for making it to major teams - there is a cull built into the system).
Some interesting points to dissect out here. For a start, all this 'employability' being measured by the size of the wage packet is a metric dreamed up by politicians, so inherently worthless. We do need to question what we want our students to take away, apart from domain-specific skills and knowledge, though. A university education ought to be about replacing an empty mind with an open and enquring one, imparting the ability to think and the ability to learn. Thus equipped, students can do what they want... often quite dramatically. I myself graduated in botany and now am sitting in a university computer science department - I'd not have been able to make such a change of path if those ostensibly teaching me about plants had not empowered me to be able to think and learn for myself! Advice to students always needs to be centered on one thing: the student themselves. We are not politicians: we should not let our own self-interest intrude, but support each student to find the path that is right for them.
Student seldom know what path is right for them until they have followed the path for some distance
The correct response to the question is "You're an adult. The best thing about being an adult is that you get to make choices. Remember that you also get to live with the consequences of those choices. We've taught you well now off you go and decide."
Wow; I agree with much, if not all, of what has been posted on this thread. Common agreement on such issues is, for me, not easy to find. My views on the distinction between Education and Training often sets me aside from others who know the value of acquiescence. The former is what Universities should focus on and the latter is what Universities should denude themselves of. The former promotes 'trainability' and therefore employability. The latter is what employers do after appointing graduates to their training schemes. Significant financial savings can be made if Universities withdrew from that crass process of treating students as pupils. An ex pupil arriving for their first year at University should be allowed to develop in to an independent student by the end of their second year, with our support naturally. By the end of their final year they should be equipped sufficiently well to answer their own questions about employment, or at least realise that they require a myriad of experiences before they're able to put their expectations of themselves into proportion; failure being one of them. Talk of skills development and value laden employment perspectives is just nonsense. At best such talk just puts words in to student mouths. At worst such talk creates undeliverable impressions to impressionable young people; the weaker of whom will hang on to advice which often borders on being fraudulent and which often results in an unintended lie about what is achievable.

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Universities in most nations are now obliged to prioritise graduate career prospects, but how it should be approached depends on your view of the meaning of education. Academics need to think that through much more clearly, says Tom Cutterham


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