Employability: the purpose or a by-product of higher education?

A little while ago I attended a talk at which the speaker, an academic from a highly respected traditional university, argued strongly that higher education should not have a purpose. It is, he suggested, an enriching experience for the student and is desirable for that reason. Whether it enhances the chances of the student, upon graduation, to find a job is not important (though no doubt congenial to the student if it does). He was followed by  another speaker, a recent graduate from the same university, who suggested that most students see their university course only in one light: a passport to a job and a career.

I was reminded of this last week when the Higher Education Policy Institute published a paper entitled Employability: Degrees of value. In this the author, Johnny Rich, suggests the following:

‘…The development of sound higher education policy does need some practical answers because, if universities are to command public investment, then a public good has to be served and observed. The money could otherwise be spent on the ill, the aged and the unhoused. Without equations to demonstrate impact, it is hard to measure the public good and, in an austere world driven by econometrics, what is hard to measure is hard to fund.’

As the author explains, recent decades have seen governments trying to find ways in which the utility of higher education can be measured. Most of the schemes introduced have been flawed. But there is, he suggests, one good way to address this: to identify the ‘three components’ that measure learning and address social and economic need. He concludes:

‘The three components are: knowledge, skills and social capital. Together, they make up “employability”.’

I suspect many academics will still baulk at this. So for example the Council for the Defence of British Universities on its website declares its opposition to the ‘instrumentalisation of knowledge’ (though it acknowledges that the fostering of intellectual skills needs to be undertaken ‘with due regard to the demands of a rapidly-changing economy’). Some academics still argue that education is good ‘for its own sake’ (an expression I find rather meaningless) and that its value is unrelated to the extent to which it leverages employment and income for the graduate. But even these academics would presumably agree that education produces a social and economic benefit.

It will always be difficult to find metrics that capture excellence in learning, and I am still open to the argument that, in reason, all such metrics are flawed. But I believe that higher education is at its most powerful when we can articulate what it achieves, and employability is one of those key achievements. We should not be afraid to declare that knowledge, skills and social capital are desirable outcomes of an excellent education.

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6 Comments on “Employability: the purpose or a by-product of higher education?”


  1. The rot sets in not when we ask what economic value education has, but when the economic argument becomes the sole determinant in whether an education has value. No one and nothing is served in the long run by such narrow conceptions of the purpose of education.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Yes, and this is particularly true when the economic argument and metrics are presented as two sides of the same medal, so to speak..
      Funny how section 9 in the Hepi Report seems to contradict all the premises of the work itself when one reads: “The secret factor when it comes to knowing whether someone will be good at a job is not their employability. It is their enthusiasm for their work.”
      Good luck with measuring that!


  2. Two comments:

    1. The people who pay for this service, the government and the students are primarily interested in employability. They deserve to at least get what they are paying for.

    2. While opening the minds of young people is a worthy objective and no doubt contributes to employability, I’m not sure that is a lot of evidence that higher education achieves much in that regard.

    It sounds like we’re saying to the public “The important stuff we’re doing can’t be measured. Just trust us. We’re doctors.”

    • anna notaro Says:

      The key word in your comment is trust, or better the tacit assumption that universities and academics are not to be trusted. This is a rather dangerous perspective. Central to the condition of the higher education sector in any nation is its social contract based on a relationship commonly referred to as the public trust. Public trust is the single most important asset of higher education
      because trust between and among higher education, policymakers, and stakeholders is based on the integrity and trust attributed to the decisions that are made, in the processes that occur in reaching decisions, in the actions implemented to reflect expectations, and in the moral vision and commitment to shaping the world of higher education for society’s benefit.
      When, as it is currently the case, such trust is lost, the repercussions on the social fabric of a nation are already too evident to be ignored.

  3. Greg Foley Says:

    There’s no reason why ‘education’ as opposed to ‘training’ cannot be achieved while also achieving employability. Indeed, I think we have a moral obligation to give graduates the best possible start to their careers and ultimately their lives; having a fulfilling working life correlates very strongly with mental and physical health so to ignore employability would be unconscionable in my view (at least when we’re talking about the 18-22 age group.)


  4. I think the Jesuits had something when they spoke about the age of formation and I would posit that University is not as important as the combination of the other educational key stages. But foundations can easily be fractured if the transitions are fluffed. The problem with the pig weighing of national testing is that the edu-system will defocus and your 3 criteria will become subservient to the new GPA.

    The top man at UC Riverside was on TV yesterday in the boss goes undercover program. As a career academic he missed the key issue: it is not simply the ugrad experience it is how such fits into the whole picture and more crucially how it pays the mortgage.


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