The employability agenda does not need to be controversial

Embracing multiple measures of career ‘success’ can move us beyond tiresome debates and put students’ needs first, says Tom Coward

May 23, 2024
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As a careers professional, I’ll admit I could feel my blood pressure rising when I saw an opinion piece on Times Higher Education’s website entitled “The employability agenda corrupts educational and personal values”.

Anyone working in careers and employability is likely to have come up against an argument along these lines before: that employability initiatives exist primarily to serve the needs of graduate employers and we want all students to become accountants, management consultants or investment bankers. An academic colleague once articulated their concern to me that incorporating more employability elements in a module would simply encourage students to be “good little neoliberal citizens”.

I do understand the strength of feeling behind the argument. It goes to the heart of the debate about the purpose of universities and the degree to which they exist to serve the needs of society, the individual and the economy. However, regardless of where you sit on that debate, I believe it’s a mistake to conclude that “the employability agenda” is somehow incompatible with academically rigorous education.

Employability comes in all shapes and sizes, and activities within the curriculum can be designed in a way that complements and enhances understanding of subject-specific knowledge. Examples include presenting alumni case studies, designing authentic assessments that resemble workplace tasks, or creating “live projects” in which students are given briefs by external organisations.

I’ve always been able to personally reassure colleagues that our primary motivation is not to boost league table position or push graduates into the highest-paid jobs but is instead defined by students’ individual career goals. Employability seems far less controversial when framed within the parameters of helping students achieve their personal goals, whatever those might be.

So why does confusion persist about employability? This is where I must admit that I agree with large amounts of the original article. The only structural, sector-wide measures of employability in the UK are graduate salaries and “professional-level work”, measured by analysis of the graduate outcomes survey. It naturally follows that those measures will influence national and institutional policy, strategy and opinion. Unfortunately, this has contributed to the culture wars debate over “value for money” and “Mickey Mouse degrees”.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Researchers at the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) have developed a non-monetary job quality measure using the reflective questions asked in the graduate outcomes survey. Graduates are asked whether their work is meaningful, whether it fits with their future plans and whether they are using what they learned during their studies, the answers to which feed into a combined score for “job design and nature of work”. Hesa’s analysis has shown that the new metric has a stronger relationship to well-being than other measures, such as salary or occupation type. This is a welcome development, giving us a measure of career “success” without using salary or job title as a proxy.

Scores by subject area make for interesting reading. Unsurprisingly, medicine, nursing, dentistry and education are among the highest-scoring subjects, while economics graduates’ high salaries do not prevent them from reporting lower job-quality scores than graduates of social studies, architecture and computer science.

Graduates of theological colleges are among the most likely to say their work is meaningful. Again, this is probably more to do with the fact that they believe their careers to be divinely ordained, rather than any particularly stellar employability provision at, say, the Cambridge Theological Federation.

This measure has real value to educators when you can compare apples with apples: looking at the results of one subject by provider. My working theory is that the courses that rank highest within their subjects will also be the ones whose curricula embody a commitment to self-awareness, work-integrated learning and reflective practice. It should be possible to test this hypothesis by evaluating a handful of courses with high, average and low scores within a subject area.

The results show that all ethnic minorities display lower scores for “job design and nature of work”, with significant differences remaining even after accounting for personal, study and employment characteristics. Hesa’s full report also includes some analysis that shows differing levels of satisfaction based on sex, age, disability, previous qualifications and geographic mobility (based on where students live before, during and after their studies). Universities should pay close attention to these imbalances and consider how they can address them through their own provision and support.

UK universities should welcome the fact that we have a new piece of information to provide some much-needed nuance and balance to the debate on the “value” of a university degree. They also need to critically reflect on what the data is telling them about how teaching is designed and delivered. I sincerely hope that a metric based on graduates’ own experiences will allow educators to see “the employability agenda” in a different light.

Tom Coward is faculty employability manager (social sciences) at the University of York.

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