Employability v employment

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Johnny Rich writing in Times Higher Education (my emphasis):

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.

There is an important distinction to make between employability and employment and for the most part I agree with Johnny. However “what the labour market needs” is constantly changing so employability shouldn’t be defined in such narrow terms because it will always fail to meet those needs. Discussion of skills often focuses on the low level rather than high level and, sadly, this is often where students tend to focus as well – things you can tick off (“I know how to use Photoshop” is always more concrete than “I can analyse problems and come up with ideas with a team”).

This is the “employability” that students worry about: do they tick the boxes on the job ad? But job ads often don’t capture what it is employers are really looking for: creative thinking, leadership potential, team working, a decent personality. It’s right to distinguish between employability and employment, but even the term employability is open to interpretation.

Employability, to me, revolves around not only knowing what you can do but also what you can’t yet do, and the ability to do something about that. As Charles Handy put it, a degree is not a qualification to practice but “a licence to learn”.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that it’s only fairly recently that we’ve started offering degrees that seem tied to specific careers. Time was that a degree equipped you for graduate-level employment (which is Charles Handy’s point) and any degree that is so narrowly focused that its graduates are viewed as only being capable of working in one area is failing on the employability front. It’s skilling people up, but it’s not making them employable beyond one field. That’s potentially disastrous for all concerned.

I don’t think education is about serving the needs of the labour market, but of the individual and society as a whole. The labour market serves them, not the other way around.

My hope for all my graduates is that they will shape the world they live in, not fit in to the shape someone else has made for them.

I realise that’s an unfashionably idealist position.

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