Graduate employment is not an ignoble pursuit for universities

Academics should not feel uncomfortable when their courses become increasingly focused on improving graduate outcomes, says Patrick Callaghan

August 22, 2022
“Hire me” mortarboard
Source: Alamy

High-minded views on the purpose of a university education have been expressed for centuries.

Cardinal Newman believed universities were places for enlightened free thinking, where controversial ideas could be explored free from external interference. Bertrand Russell saw the purpose of higher education as teaching students to interrogate their own ideas with the same rigour they used to question the ideas of others. In Michael Oakeshott’s words, attending university grants learners the “gift of an interval” to come to terms with themselves untrammelled by any requirement to make a difference in society. Stefan Collini is a more contemporary exponent of this approach.

These ideals are often spoken in opposition to the increased “marketisation” that successive governments have imposed on universities in the UK and elsewhere. For many academics, attention to employment dilutes the higher purposes of their calling. However, as expressions of the sole purpose of higher education in the 21st century, the views above are misguided.

THE Campus resource: Strategies to train students in three transferable skills wanted by employers

That is certainly governments’ view. England’s Office for Students identifies successful student outcomes according to the percentage of students in highly skilled professional jobs 15 months after graduation. Courses that fare poorly on this measure may be subject to an inspection and even closure. The ultimate sanction for universities with poor graduate outcomes across several courses could be loss of their licence to operate as a university. The amended Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), due in early 2023, is also likely to use graduate outcomes as a metric.

But we shouldn’t pursue employability merely because the politicians and regulators tell us to. The disdain that many academics have for it is often at odds with the motivations of their students, too. In the UK and elsewhere, many seek a university degree to improve their life chances by preparing themselves for skilled employment.

This is especially common at so-called lower status universities, which attract more financially disadvantaged students. For these individuals, attending university is riskier than it is for better-off students. Hence, they have strong expectations that their studies will lead to material benefits.

Achieving personal growth and contributing to improvements in society also score highly on such students’ list of motivations. But this “investor” approach, too, is driven by the expectation that a degree will lead to productive, skilled, prestigious work. Students do also allude to the higher ideals of a university education, but seldom cite them as their main motivation for studying.

It may be that these motivations are simply a case of students internalising some of the prevailing marketisation values apparent in many universities, but not in my experience. Either way, universities ignore the importance of employment at their peril.

Of course, higher education institutions are not entirely responsible for whether their students achieve highly skilled jobs. Many graduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds face both conscious and unconscious discrimination in hiring and employment, especially in so-called prestigious industries. Privilege pays, it seems. Despite these hindrances, however, universities are well placed to help their students succeed in the workplace and thereby – if they also improve access among under-represented communities – to promote social mobility.

Building employability skills requires universities to offer more numerous and inclusive extracurricular activities and work placements. They should also set up and use their own employment agencies and work with industry boards and partners in the design, delivery and evaluation of courses. It is helpful to rethink curricula and assessment, adopting work-based learning modules and ensuring that module and course learning outcomes reflect the need to develop employment skills.

The benefits of all this aren’t just felt in graduates’ purses and wallets. Often overlooked in discussions about the role of academia in raising students’ employability is the overwhelming evidence of the positive role that employment plays in people’s mental health and general well-being. An increasing number of UK university students meet diagnostic criteria for common mental health problems. A substantial number have higher levels of depression than the general population, and their suicide rates have increased significantly in the past 10 years. Good jobs promote social inclusion and support, enhance human and social capital and confer status. Hence, universities that help students achieve the best possible employment outcomes may make an important contribution to public health.

Considering the UK government’s threat to courses and universities with poorer graduate outcomes, promoting employability is also important to university staff’s jobs, health and well-being. It may not be the sole purpose of higher education, but neither is it an ignoble pursuit.

Patrick Callaghan is associate pro vice-chancellor (research) and professor of mental health science at London South Bank University.

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Reader's comments (2)

The problem with the government's model is that it is one of 'immediate' employability. The assumption being that the student should 'hit the ground running' on the employment track. However, in a world where one increasingly needs a graduate degree to move up the economic ladder, such a model is short sighted to say the least. What is required is a more longer term perspective that accounts for the fact that a large part of UG education is positioning to be able to leverage graduate education for significant gains. So what matters less is the employability of a 22 year old than the gains that individual can make at the age of 30 (for example). This is something that US schools understand quite well. What matters is not only that the graduate has opportunities and prospects but that those opportunities and prospects lead to long term career success.
Indeed. When I left university it was several years before I escaped from what are, to this day, lumped together on my CV as "Various non-professional jobs" and started work in a software house, the employment that set my feet on a somewhat winding path that has ended here in academia. However, although this included a domain change from Botany (which I studied) to Computer Science (which I now teach), I daily thank my Botany professors for the ability to learn independently and think critically, skills I use every day.


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