Graduate Employability and the New Economic Order

That Lawrie keeps asking me interesting questions. This post comes from one that he asked me recently. 

“A new publication issued today by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) sets out, for the first time, figures describing the First Destinations of students leaving universities and colleges of higher education throughout the UK.”

No, not today. The 9th of August 1996, when a still-damp-behind-the-ears HESA published the results of a ground-breaking survey concerning where students end up after they complete their degree. More than the rise (and rise) of fees, more than the expansion of the system, more (even) than the growth of the world wide web; the publication of these numbers has defined the shape and nature of modern higher education.

Before this time (and records are hazy here, without disturbing my local library for bizarre out of print 90s educational pamphlets from the National Archive ) universities and colleges careers advisory services did their own surveys of graduate destinations, which were annually grouped by the DfEE.  Though this produced interesting data, national ownership across a relatively newly unified HE sector was clearly the way to integrity.

And also league tables.

Here at last was a metric that promised to convert investment in Higher Education into “real world” economic benefit. Beyond the vague professorial arm waving, and the lovely glowy feeling, some hard return on investment data.

We’re pre-Dearing here, so obviously Lord Ron and team had a thing or two to say in their his 1997 report. Though being careful not to provide a “purely instrumental approach to higher education” (4.2), the report makes a number of gestures towards the need to encompass employer requirements in the design and delivery of HE courses. Some of these (4.14) recommendations are as stark and uncompromising as anything in Browne (or Avalanche)

  • above all, this new economic order will place a premium on knowledge. Institutions are well-placed to capitalise on higher education’s long-standing purpose of developing knowledge and understanding. But to do so, they need to recognise more consistently that individuals need to be equipped in their initial higher education with the knowledge, skills and understanding which they can use as a basis to secure further knowledge and skills;

“New Economic Order”, eh? Of course, I’ve gone over some of this history before, in particular the 20 year English habit of building new universities at the drop of a capitalist’s stovepipe hat. What was new in Dearing was the idea of embedding these values into a wider definition of what it means to be a university.

The Blunkett-led DfEE commissioned a report entitled “Employability: Developing a Framework for Policy Analysis” from the Institute for Employment Studies, which was delivered by Jim Hillage and Emma Pollard in 1998. (If the idea of a framework for policy analysis is ringing faint alarm bells in the ears of alert FOTA readers, then yes – the late 90s saw a certain Dr Barber influencing the development of education policy in England.)

What Hillage and Pollard do is provide three key elements of scaffolding to the burgeoning employability agenda in education (note: not solely HE)

  • A literature review, and definition of the term
  • A “framework” for policy delivery, to (yes) “operationalise” employability
  • Some initial analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the various available measures of employability.

I’m very close to just quoting huge chunks of this report as it is such a perfect encapsulation of the time.

Their definition (p11)
Their definition (p11)

You have to love “labour market efficiency”, don’t you?

Hillage and Pollard make an attempt to split the employability of an individual into a set of attributes (eg p21); “Assets” (knowledge, skills and attitudes), which are “deployed” (career planning and goals), then “presented” (interview and application). “Context” dangles off the end as a late admission that other things going on in the world, or in the life of an individual can have a powerful effect.

Again, very much of the time, the report is cautious but optimistic about the methods of measuring employability – noting that although “output measures” (such as our first destination survey) can be useful, the wider context of the state of the labour market needs to be taken into account.

“Intermediate indicators” (the possession of appropriate skills and knowledge) are easier to measure. You could read across to competency-led course design and the whole world of “learning outcomes” here.

The final indicator type analysed is “perceptual” – broadly, what do employers think of the “employability” of their intake? Again context is key here, and there is an immediacy bias – in that the skills required to do a particular task (I’ll call them “role skills”) are separate from the wider concerns of the individual in being “employable” in a wider way.

But if this document has a theme, it is that the individual needs to take responsibility for their own employability. The learner is complicit in their own subservience to an economic and value-generation system, with the educator merely a resource to be drawn on in this process.

It is this model of education – now measured without qualification – that has come to dominate HE. It is a conceptualisation tied in with institutional (and often academic) support of a neo-liberal system without question. (A neoliberal system, I may add, that is looking none-too-healthy at the moment). This is a model that is being problematised by Professor Richard Hall and others. And this is why (Lawrie) that HE in England is markedly less political than in countries without a fully integrated and developed employability agenda.

Here’s the 2011 White Paper: “To be successful, institutions will have to appeal to
prospective students and be respected by employers”
(14) and “We also set out how we will create the conditions to encourage greater collaboration between higher education institutions and employers to ensure that students gain the knowledge and skills they need to embark on rewarding careers”  (3.2)

Good luck.

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