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.